David Conn: Hillsborough revisited: a sobering tale of half-hearted inquests and poor policing

Saturday 16 April 2005 00:00
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More than 6,000 people quietly filled the Kop's steepling seats yesterday, not to cheer Liverpool's qualification for the Champions' League semi-final but to remember the 96 supporters, mostly young, who died at Hillsborough 16 years ago. A resounding reminder of the huge scale of this loss is the achingly long time it took for a candle to be lit, and the name read out, for each of the 96 dead.

More than 6,000 people quietly filled the Kop's steepling seats yesterday, not to cheer Liverpool's qualification for the Champions' League semi-final but to remember the 96 supporters, mostly young, who died at Hillsborough 16 years ago. A resounding reminder of the huge scale of this loss is the achingly long time it took for a candle to be lit, and the name read out, for each of the 96 dead.

Liverpool's quarter-final ties with Juventus brought back memories of Heysel, which happened just four years earlier. They were a reminder that hooliganism, which had nothing to do with Hillsborough, was the context for how the police, football clubs, Government, the Press and general public generalised football supporters, particularly Liverpool fans, at the time.

Lord Justice Taylor's report established that mismanagement by the South Yorkshire Police and neglect by Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and Sheffield City Council led to a horribly unsafe ground and caused the disaster. Yet still, spread most notoriously by The Sun, the stories spewed out of drunkenness and misbehaviour.

These days there is more general acceptance that the fans were helpless victims - although still, particularly in Sheffield, there are many who refuse to believe it. The Sun, desperate for sales on Merseyside, tried unsuccessfully to win over the families last year, suggesting that the families of the dead need the clout the newspaper could give them in order to achieve justice.

The idea has settled, then, that the families have never received justice. But mostly there is only a vague grasp of why they still feel such seething outrage. Phil Hammond, the Hillsborough Family Support Group's chairman, whose 14-year-old son Philip died in the disaster, explained.

"First, Taylor said the police, football club and council were to blame, yet nobody has ever been disciplined or held to account," he said. "Secondly, the way the inquests were carried out, we have never actually found out how our loved ones died."

To grieving relatives, that denies a basic human right and need and negates the very purpose of an inquest. After Hillsborough, the inquest was delayed until the completion of an investigation for the Director of Public Prosecutions into whether criminal charges should be brought against any individual. In April 1990 he decided there should not.

The Sheffield coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, decided in the meantime to hold "mini-inquests", in which a brief "evidence summary" was read out about how each person died. No witnesses were called, nor was there any opportunity to cross-examine or even ask questions. Yet that was the only airing given to how each individual died, what treatment they did or did not receive, who helped them or who didn't. The main inquest, starting in November 1990, considered the general horror of the day but only up to 3.15pm, the controversial "cut-off" time imposed by the coroner. So the families still do not know what exactly happened to their loved ones before they died.

Among all these questions, resentments and agonies, one aspect has been largely overlooked: the role of the West Midlands Police. They were brought in to investigate the disaster on behalf of Lord Justice Taylor, at a time when their own Serious Crime Squad was starting to be exposed as violent, corrupt and responsible for dozens of miscarriages of justice, including those of the Birmingham Six and Bridgewater Four.

On 14 August 1989, Geoffrey Dear, the then West Midlands Police chief constable, disbanded the squad and announced an investigation into the allegations of brutality and malpractice. Just two days later, the DPP appointed the West Midlands Police to the criminal investigation into Hillsborough, a decision many considered a "face saver" for Dear.

While the investigation was carried out into the Serious Crime Squad, Dear transferred its senior officers and some former officers to "non-jobs", well away from their usual detective work. He termed the officers' new responsibilities "non-operational duties", tame areas of work which included, for example, the former head of a branch of the CID being in charge of "road safety and talks in schools".

Detective Superintendent Stanley Beechey, described as a former head of the Serious Crime Squad and in 1989 the deputy head of West Midlands CID, was on Dear's list. His transfer was to "study technical aspects of Hillsborough".

Dear told me that this would have involved going through hours of poor quality videotape to try to make visual sense of it. Beechey was not intended to be involved at all with the meat of the investigation. Instead, Beechey played a very senior role. At the conclusion of the mini-inquests, still a weeping wound for the families, the coroner said Beechey had "an awful lot to do" with preparing the evidence summaries of how each victim had died.

"We could not have managed without you and I do appreciate it," Dr Popper said to Beechey and a fellow officer. Beechey was also involved in the DPP's criminal investigation. Then, at the main inquest, he appeared in day-to-day control of the evidence.

Dr Popper has now retired, but the current Sheffield coroner, Christopher Dorries, told me: "Dr Popper suspects that [Beechey] would have been the second most senior officer at the time of the main inquest."

Geoffrey Dear said that had he known Beechey was involved at this level, he would have removed him: "Not because he might necessarily be doing anything wrong, but because it was not appropriate."

Dear left the West Midlands Police in April 1990. His replacement, Ronald Hadfield, restored some former Serious Crime Squad officers to full duties, but according to the independent inquiry carried out by Dr Tim Kaye of Birmingham University, Stanley Beechey was not restored to operational duties until 30 November 1990. He was never charged with any disciplinary offence arising out of the investigation into the Serious Crime Squad, but nevertheless this means that from 14 August 1989 to 30 November 1990, Beechey was formally on "non-operational duties".

That period took in the Hillsborough mini-inquest procedure, the whole course of the DPP's inquiry, and even the early sessions of the main inquest, which began in Sheffield on 19 November 1990. Yet Beechey was, throughout, clearly working on more than "studying technical aspects" of the disaster.

There is no evidence that Beechey did anything at all improper on the Hillsborough investigation, but West Midlands Police have declined to comment on why he was allowed to participate at that senior level while under investigation himself. Beechey himself is now retired, and he did not reply to a letter from me, which the force forwarded to him.

Phil Hammond is calling for an inquiry. "It's another grey area, another outstanding question," he said. "We want to know how and why Beechey got on to these Hillsborough processes, and what role he played. Maybe he played everything by the book, but we have a right to know. It certainly does not look as if he was on 'non-operational duties'. If it was 'non-operational duties', it suggests the police didn't think Hillsborough was very important, doesn't it?"

davidconn@independent.co.uk

The roots and repercussions of one of football's darkest days

Hillsborough: The truth

On 15 April 1989, 96 people died in a crush on the Leppings Lane terrace of Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough Ground, at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

The police

Lord Justice Taylor found that South Yorkshire Police's chief superintendent David Duckenfield's decision to open an exit gate but not close off a tunnel leading to the overcrowded central terrace pens was "the immediate cause of ... the disaster".

Sheffield Wednesday FC

Sheffield Wednesday's safety certificate was 10 years out of date. A full page of the Taylor Report is taken up with itemising the club's many breaches of the Home Office's "Green Guide" to crowd safety, several of which contributed directly to the disaster.

Sheffield Wednesday have never formally apologised to the victims' families. Under their chairman Dave Richards, who took over the Yorkshire club in October 1990, Wednesday did not put up a memorial for another nine years.

Richards is now the chairman of the Premier League and football's most senior administrator.

Sheffield City Council

Their failure, as the licensing authority, to ensure the safety certificate was correct, was "a serious breach of duty", according to Taylor.

Liverpool supporters

Taylor said no more than a small minority misbehaved. "Some police officers, seeking to rationalise their loss of control, overestimated the drunken element in the crowd," he said.

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