29 April 2016

What went wrong with British policing?


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One of the most affecting pieces of coverage of the Hillsborough verdict was the simplest. The BBC’s Today programme Radio 4 earlier this week simply ran lengthy clips of the live commentary by Peter Jones from the ground on the day – the 15th April 1989 – when 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives and hundreds more were injured. What began by being reported as a minor incident at one end, as Liverpool and Nottingham Forest began their FA Cup semi-final, grew steadily into a gripping eyewitness account of a disaster that 27 years later is a byword for injustice, institutional failure and the inability of the British State to respond speedily and adequately to those who have been wronged.

Many of us who are old enough will remember where exactly we were when we first heard that afternoon about the events at Hillsborough. On those BBC clips, a brief reference to another football game (Rangers 0 – St Johnstone 0) flicked a switch on in my brain. During Hillsborough I was in Glasgow watching Rangers play, somewhat unusually, at Parkhead, the home of Celtic, even though Celtic were elsewhere. Those were the days of terraces, in which the crowd on a busy day carried you along whether you liked it or not when a goal was scored or the referee had committed an outrage such as making a decision counter to the interests of your team.

Football grounds then were exceedingly grimy places, in which tens of thousands of fans were penned in for fear of what they might do. As if to prove the necessity of such arrangements that day in Glasgow there was some police activity when several Rangers supporters tried to get through from one end into what used to be called “the jungle” at Parkhead, the favoured spot of the most committed Celtic fans. I don’t know why they tried to do this, although the police rightly stopped them. It must have had something to do with wanting to claim the hallowed territory of their enemies when the Celtic fans weren’t there. How stupid it all seems now.

On the walk back into Glasgow that sunny late afternoon, amid the throng various people had transistor radios to hear the results from elsewhere. The news from hundreds of miles away spread, ebbing and flowing, rippling through the large crowd. Some people had been killed at a game in England. Lots of people had been killed. By the time I got home, the television bulletins were already covering nothing else and the UK had gone into a form of collective shock. Beyond straightforward horror and sympathy, millions of Britons could identify with the stories of those who had lost their lives. They were brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers who had simply gone off to the football for a fun afternoon out and never came home. Some of them were students (I had just finished my final batch of school exams) who if they had lived would now be middle-aged. They were just like the rest of us.

And then in the days afterwards the coverage darkened. Here I have a confession to make. Like many people who had been pushed along in a large football crowd it wasn’t difficult to believe the less lurid of the allegations. It looked as though a lot of people had turned up late and jostled. Perhaps some of them had been for a few pints or came without a ticket in the hope of scaling a wall. This was hardly uncommon in 1980s football. It seemed obvious that with kick-off approaching they wanted in, the police could not hold them along with the many who had never been near the pub that day. The gates were opened and they rushed into that tunnel to get a view, in the process pushing the crowd in front of them forward and causing the crush.

Of course, that is really not what happened and for anyone with the tiniest sliver of remaining doubts, I recommend reading David Conn’s outstanding report published this week in the Guardian. Such accounts are the modern British equivalent of reading about the Titanic. You read, and read again, hoping that this time the ending will be different. It never is.

What is most striking about Conn’s account is the detailed explanation of the policing failure and the ramshackle nature of the ground. Hillsborough was a death trap, like many football grounds were then, and it needed careful management to avoid a crush. Shortly before the semi-final, the experienced commander who ran the operation to police Hillsborough was removed and replaced over a daft row about discipline. The disciplinarian police chief Peter Wright thought the popular Ch Supt Brian Mole had been insufficiently tough on his men over a ridiculous prank. From that decision flowed disaster, because Mole’s theoretically tough-guy replacement, David Duckenfield, did not know what he was doing. All the procedures which would normally have been applied to ease the pressure and let the crowd in gradually, steering them away from the pens that were full were not followed. Duckenfield then misled the FA about his culpability and the tragic chain of events.

It is a very 1980s story, involving a clash between authoritarians and quiet professionals, set against a backdrop of broken down infrastructure. There were lies and smears to cover up what had gone wrong, but it should never be forgotten that it began with a simple wrong-headed management failure that it is worth trying to understand. Note, I did not say excuse. I said understand, for without understanding what happened there is always the possibility some of the mistakes will be repeated in another context.

Someone, I hope, is writing a full and proper journalistic investigation into the decades of problems at South Yorkshire Police, which were mirrored at several other police forces in the UK in that period. The character of Wright – the chief constable, now dead – was a factor. He and his contemporaries were men born in the 1930s, who grew up with a shared set of assumptions about order, discipline and crowds, which had been tested violently in the miners strike a few years earlier, when Wright already led the force. The structures and style he imposed at South Yorkshire seemed to owe much to his experience as a rating in the Royal Navy. No dissent was tolerated; it was a military approach; political authority was not questioned.

And yet it is easy to caricature Wright. In Liverpool during the riots of 1981 he was one of those who advocated a less confrontational approach. It was clear even then that the concept of policing with consent was in danger, as entire groups of Britons opted out from respecting police authority. For the police chiefs of that era, and politicians and voters, who had witnessed the rise of football hooliganism throughout the 1970s and the spread of wider indiscipline, it must have seemed at points as though the social fabric was disintegrating. Add to that, policing and British society was riddled with racism, casual cruelty and quite astonishing amounts of routine violence. Evidence tampering and a lack of transparency had become if not the norm then widespread in policing. That was the country in which law-abiding, blameless individuals that day at Hillsborough were penned in and crushed to death.

Hillsborough continues to have a calamitous impact on the reputation of policing almost three decades on. Ever since, forces have lurched from one crisis to another, all the while eroding trust in the police that not long ago was automatic and unquestioning. Their over the top conduct during the hacking investigations was shocking, but it simply showed journalists what other less affluent people coming into contact with the system often encounter daily. In Scotland, the SNP’s new single police force has faced scandal after scandal. Even as many types of crime have fallen (across the West) police in the UK have sunk down there in public perception with journalists, expense-fiddling politicians, doctors guilty of malpractice, social workers and estate agents.

This is not a healthy state of affairs, and for the hardworking officers we depend on daily – who help to thwart terrorist attacks and clean up the detritus in town centres on a drunken Fridaynight – the situation must seem somewhat hopeless. Many suggestions are made about what might be done to improve conduct and restore trust. Some suggest the creation of a proper officer class, although efforts have been made and there are already many good officers who are there because policing is their vocation. Supporters of the Hillsborough families demand trials of those police officers involved in the cover-up, although one must wonder what good it would do to try the dead, the ruined and the bullied.

It is a British media staple to say that “we cannot go on like this,” when going on like this, bumbling along, in a half-apathetic fashion, tends to be the British way. But on policing and the dispensing of justice, we really cannot go on like this. Our prisons offer a revolving door of repeat offender misery; the police are remote and too rarely seen on our streets; and Dickensian-era cruelty, exploitation and trafficking exist in the undergrowth of our cities.

The police can hardly fix all this, but as long as they are insufficiently trusted then it will be impossible to begin. Making a start in putting matters right would surely involve the next generation of police leaders talking much more openly to the rest of us, in non-police language that does not sound as though it has been translated first into French, then German, then Russian and finally back into stilted English, about what has gone wrong and how we might all get back what we so sorely need. That is policing we can all – criminals particularly – respect.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.