Ian Herbert: Grief, sadness and a sense of guilt... the story of a street copper’s testimony to the Hillsborough investigation this week

Was he too traumatised to know what he was signing?

You form friendships in unexpected places with this job and, considering that the starting point for a former police officer and me was a newspaper interview about the day which reduced his life to shreds, it has been surprising that he’s been willing to keep in touch. He was one of the junior officers who worked at Hillsborough on the day of the disaster, 24 years ago.

He and I have talked for long enough now for me to know the dismal details of how he, like dozens more street coppers policing the match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at ground level, fought against insuperable odds to make a difference. As we all now know, it was a day for which their commanding officers were not prepared. There’ll be a text message exchange between the two of us every now and then. It is usually when a Hillsborough development has come to light and nearly always when Sir Norman Bettison – a South Yorkshire detective chief inspector back then, but West Yorkshire Chief Constable when he resigned last year amid allegations that he abused his position in relation to the referral of his actions to the Independent Police Complaints Commission – is in the headlines. He knew Bettison from childhood as the lad from the Rotherham Road who went to the posh school.

The latest call from my friend’s side of the Pennines, which came two weeks ago, was unexpected. He had been called for interview by the IPCC, he said. Would I go along with him for moral support? His many tales of camaraderie about old times in the force created the impression that those young officers who were left so traumatised by the Hillsborough disaster would have a social network to draw upon. But there is none. My friend thinks he knows of where one or two might now live, across South Yorkshire, but these people – mostly well into their fifties now – are generally carrying the memories on their own.

From the minute I pulled up outside his stone-built terraced house I knew why he had needed someone with him. He was already outside on the pavement waiting, nervy, just talking, talking. He’d not slept well. “Time to go, isn’t it?” I suggested, several times over, as the clock ticked towards 10am: the interview start time. He seemed to be struggling to face up to this.

The drive out to the interview took us past the site – landscaped and covered with soulless metal warehouses now – where my friend was on the police front line against South Yorkshire’s miners in the legendary Battle of Orgreave, at the height of the strike, 29 years ago. He’d previously done a brief stint working in the Treeton Colliery himself – and so had his father – so he received some stick after Orgreave. He took it. It was all water off a duck’s back to him and he thought it always would be where his police work was concerned, until that day he went to Hillsborough.

He was calmer by the time we arrived at the pre-agreed place for interview – a meeting room in a new, anonymous hotel on the outskirts of town – and the interviewers immediately contributed to the sense that this might be more productive than he had hoped. Their firm and unflinching push for information was tempered with the kind of emotional intelligence absent in the many communications from investigators in the immediate aftermath of 15 April 1989.

My friend began to construct for them a coherent narrative of what had happened. It has become a very familiar narrative to me, ever since he began describing the experience to me in detail, about a year ago, though the most telling aspect was where it – and he – came to a broken halt.

His testimony across over six hours of conversation included the recall of many vivid recollections of that day. There was the particular jocular conversation with a Liverpool fan beforehand. The camera crew which was unfathomably allowed to film officers as they gathered in the stadium hours after the disaster. The officer carrying a child in his arms across the perimeter of the stadium. A fellow officer sobbing in the station the following day as they clocked in for a 2-10pm shift as if nothing had happened.

But then the acute memory of his own designated role that day, guiding Liverpool fans towards the Leppings Lane turnstiles, where they died, jolted him severely, quickening the guilt and the grief which are never far from the surface where Hillsborough is concerned. He blames himself. We broke off, took some air, resumed and the narrative was flowing again before the next jolt, which came where I had thought it might.

It relates to a thought – rather than an action, or inaction – he has told me about before. In the febrile aftermath, when Liverpool supporters who had heard boos and taunts sound from the opposite terraces while dozens of their own died, he believed police officers were about to be set upon. He told himself then that the act of last resort would be to jump into the river Don. It wasn’t an onslaught. Nobody needed the river. And he has never been able to forgive himself for contemplating bailing out.

The day meandered on and so did his story, with the growing sense that the responsibility for these interviews has been put in good hands. Darkness had fallen by the time he put on his coat and stepped out into the chill South Yorkshire night. It brought a sense of relief that this was over – but no sense that all questions had been answered and a door finally closed.

Before the interview, my friend was sent a version of a statement he made in the aftermath – with his critical comments removed. The four pages of the revised statement, professionally retyped 24 long years ago, each had his signature at the bottom. He would not have considered signing a statement without reading it, he said. He believed the signatures were superimposed. Yet the statement process was going on when he was suffering the beginnings of post-traumatic stress disorder. He was getting through each day with tranquillisers at that time. Was he too traumatised to realise what he was signing? He can’t entirely rule out that possibility – extremely remote though he thinks it is.

There will be plenty more officers like him, for whom this could all have been dealt with – and, to an extent, put away – a quarter of a century ago. Next year’s reopened Hillsborough inquests may very well tell us that not all of those working the streets and the turnstiles at Hillsborough that day were saints. It may also conclude that not all senior officers were villains. For now, the quiet grief of those asked to bring order from the chaos in anonymous hotel rooms throughout northern England will be painful to behold.

And if that is the experience of the once-young officers, who can possibly imagine what the families of those 96 who died are going through as they are asked to recall it, retell it and relive it?

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