Investigators are to examine whether statements taken by from survivors of the Hillsborough disaster by West Midlands police were illegally amended to divert criticism away from the official handling of the tragedy.
Anyone who attended the match in Sheffield in 1989 and later gave evidence to officers was urged to come forward today by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) so that their version of events can be compared with the police records taken.
It follows complaints by fans that statements were altered after reading them on the website of the Hillsborough Independent Panel whose damning report led to the overturning of the inquests into the deaths of the 96 Liverpool fans, a new criminal investigation and the biggest inquiry into alleged police misconduct ever held.
West Midlands police played a pivotal role in the aftermath of Hillsborough. It carried out the original criminal investigation into the tragedy as well as reporting to the Taylor Inquiry into Britain's worst sporting disaster and providing evidence for the flawed inquests.
But some fans have since claimed they were encouraged to withdraw their criticism of the South Yorkshire police's handling of the match. Investigators said some West Midlands statements failed to tally with preliminary questionnaires completed by survivors although they declined to disclose how many. It is expected that more are likely to emerge in the coming weeks.
The new call for witnesses means that public attention will now focus on the role of the West Midlands force alongside that of colleagues at South Yorkshire whose officers' statements were changed as in an attempt to blame the fans for the crush.
Deborah Glass, deputy chair of the IPCC, said: “It has become apparent that some of the fans statements might also have been amended possibly in the same way as for police officers. Why did this happen? How did it happen? How significant is it?” She said it was possible that criminal offences had occurred in the alteration of the statements.
Ms Glass said that the response from potential witnesses to the investigation had been positive but declined to comment on suggestions that some had refused to co-operate with investigators.
The IPCC has recovered the policy books kept by West Midlands police outlining their approach to the criminal investigation.
In 1990 the then Director of Public Prosecutions Allan Green concluded there was insufficient evidence to bring any individual or organisation to trial -despite the findings of Lord Taylor which were severely critical of South Yorkshire police and others.
The decision outraged the Hillsborough families who later brought a private prosecution against two police officers for manslaughter and malfeasance in public office. One was found not guilty in 2000 and the other acquitted after the jury failed to reach a verdict.
Chris Mahaffey, a former Metropolitan Police detective and now senior investigator for the IPCC, said: “We must assess whether there's any evidence of criminal conduct. Our analysis, certainly of these large number of questionnaires completed by fans at the disaster, when you make comparison with these questionnaires against other documentation that appears to come from the same person, there are differences. Who was actually directing this, if there was someone directing this?”
Ms Glass said that for many people the day of the match had been the worst of their lives.
“We know thousands of people gave eyewitness accounts to that investigation. We want to speak to those people about their experiences of dealing with West Midlands Police. We also know some of you have never been able to give your account. This is your opportunity. I know this will be difficult for many of you,” she said.
The IPCC investigation is expected to conclude by summer 2015.