'Gross misconduct' – but police watchdog still won’t throw the book at Hillsborough police chief Sir Norman Bettison


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The Independent Online

One of Britain’s most senior police officers, who was severely criticised for his role in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, abused his position and would have faced dismissal for gross misconduct if he had not quit with his full pension, the police watchdog has found.

Families of the victims this evening called for Sir Norman Bettison to be stripped of his knighthood and his £83,000-a-year pension after a damning report into his conduct. They said they were “shell-shocked” that he could now escape sanction after having stood down.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) also expressed its exasperation that Sir Norman, the former Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, cannot face a disciplinary hearing because he quit the force in October. The watchdog said it was instead “publishing its findings for the public to judge”.

Sir Norman had a case to answer for discreditable conduct and abuse of authority, the watchdog ruled, which, if proven in a disciplinary hearing, would justify dismissal on grounds of gross misconduct. It said he had tried to influence his own police authority’s attempt to refer him to the IPCC.

“We want to see him stripped of his honours – his knighthood and his Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University,” said Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son, James, was one of the 96 victims who died in the 1989 disaster at the football stadium. “I believe he resigned to protect his pension and his behaviour has shown he is not deserving of that pension.”

Steve Kelly, of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, described the findings as “another kick in the teeth”. He said: “I’m shell-shocked. It says to me have they got any teeth? They can say ‘He was a bad boy and would have been disciplined or most likely kicked out of the force but sorry we can’t do anything about it’. So what’s the point in setting up this IPCC investigation and spending millions of pounds on it when that money could be better off spent elsewhere?”

The Hillsborough tragedy in Sheffield in April 1989 was the worst sporting disaster in British history. It was caused by huge overcrowding on a terrace before an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. To ease overcrowding outside, police opened an exit gate, allowing supporters to flood in. Fenced in, Liverpool fans were crushed to death.

The former senior officer, who has always denied blaming Liverpool fans for the tragedy, faces a separate investigation by the police watchdog into allegations that he took part in a smear campaign to mislead the media, Parliament and the public following the disaster, where he was present as a spectator.

The deputy chair of the IPPC, Deborah Glass, said the case should serve as a “salutary reminder” to chief officers of the damage done to public confidence in policing when the behaviour of senior leaders was called into question. She said: “Given the effect that those allegations have had on the public perception of him and policing generally, his attempts to manipulate and manage the perception of the referral of complaints about him, for his own self-interest, is particularly concerning. It is also conduct that falls far short of what should be expected of any chief constable.”

The report examines the circumstances following the publication of the Hillsborough Panel’s findings in September last year. It was concluded that Sir Norman used his powerful position to attempt to refer his case to the IPCC voluntarily rather than waiting for a special committee of the police authority to do so.

Whilst accepting that he did not seek to avoid scrutiny by the watchdog it was found that “on the balance of probabilities” he wanted “to avoid any public impression he had done something wrong”. It added: “Sir Norman put his own reputation as an individual above the need to ensure that a proper and transparent process was followed.”

The watchdog said his position allowed him to have repeated conversations with the chair and chief executive of the West Yorkshire Police Authority, which was charged with deciding his fate – a privilege not afforded the officers who served under him.

This amounted to a case that he had abused his senior position. The IPCC said: “We consider that his actions would so undermine the faith of those officers serving under him, and members of the public, that a panel considering this conduct would form the view that Sir Norman’s position as head of the force was untenable and thus dismissal would be justified. This therefore amounts to gross misconduct.”

This was also the view of the special committee of the police authority. It was also found that his recollection of conversations dramatically differed from those of the authority’s two leading figures. But the report noted that chief executive Fraser Sampson and chair Mark Burns-Williamson, who is now West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, failed to point out that his overtures to refer himself were inappropriate.

The report also said that neither Sir Norman’s nor Mr Burns-Williamson’s recollected accounts of their disputed conversations “can be said to be inherently more reliable than the other’s” and that it is therefore unable to say that Sir Norman was dishonest. Sir Norman’s solicitor, John Harding, described the investigation as “incomplete” but said his client would co-operate with the wider IPCC inquiry. “The decision that there is a case to answer is not a finding of guilt. This point is accepted, explicitly, in the foreword of the IPCC report and it therefore sits, uncomfortably, with some of the comments in the investigator’s report, made after an incomplete investigation.”

A Conservative MP, Alec Shelbrooke, also said Sir Norman should lose his knighthood if he is unable to clear his name: “If the IPCC allegations are held up that... [he] tried to look after his own self-interest before anything else, then that’s incompatible with being knighted for services to the police force.”

* Sir Norman’s solicitors, Kingsley Napley, have asked us to state that  Sir Norman did not resign in order to avoid disciplinary proceedings. His position is in fact, that West Yorkshire Police Authority required that he resign and that, as the IPCC confirmed in its report, it was not his intention to go at the time of his resignation.  We are pleased to be able to clarify Sir Norman’s position.