Everyone makes mistakes. And most mistakes are forgiven, provided the perpetrators have the courage to admit them. But in the words of the song, ‘sorry’ so often seems to be the hardest word.
A jury has found the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster were unlawfully killed. In the course of the proceedings, a catalogue of police failings emerged that could result in criminal charges. It all begs the question – why has it proved so difficult for South Yorkshire Police to offer the families an unreserved, undiluted, unambiguous, full and frank apology for their failures before, during and after the disaster?
Perhaps they figure that they learn so much from their mistakes, they can’t wait to make another one. Barely was the ink dry on the inquest verdicts than Narpo (National Association of Retired Police Officers) released a statement congratulating colleagues for doing “a good job”. Rick Naylor, a Narpo member who was working at Hillsborough on the day, sent colleagues a message entitled ‘It was a bad day’. “Mistakes were made and we would all like to turn the clock back,” he wrote, adding that despite the failings found by the inquests “there were many examples of outstanding actions and selflessness by police officers on that tragic day as they did their best to deal with the disaster unfolding before them”. Adding that his colleagues had done well to remain dignified while “bile and hatred” was directed towards the force, which faced “immense challenges” in the 1980s.
I know the message was intended to be internal and was made public by accident, but the timing is so insensitive, it defies belief. Another catastrophic own goal.
David Crompton, the current Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, was suspended on Wednesday amid continued anger over disproven claims that Liverpool fans were to blame for the deaths.
At the inquest, it was established that the supporters did not turn up late and that any late arrivals had no bearing whatsoever on the tragedy. Fans were told to turn up fifteen minutes before the game but the crush outside the turnstiles occurred thirty minutes before the game. This was a direct result of the insufficient number of turnstiles in operation for that section of the ground. Police chief David Duckenfield, however, immediately blamed the gate opening on the fans and, as a result, the police treated the incident as a crowd behaviour problem instead of a major medical emergency. Consequently, ambulances were prevented from entering the ground.
Barry Devonside, whose 18-year-old son, Christopher, died in the tragedy, said: “They didn’t do a good job. Yes, I saw police officers endeavouring to give mouth-to-mouth or CPR and those people were excellent. But the sad thing is they were only a few, maybe on two hands you could count them.”
During the subsequent attempts to cover-up their actions, South Yorkshire Police allowed narrow loyalties to prevail over their broader humanity and sense of propriety. Those involved should be thoroughly and unreservedly ashamed of themselves. The communities of South Yorkshire need a police force they can trust and respect, but this is not a time for the force to prioritise its wounded pride. Yes, eventually, energies must be focused on rebuilding morale, but before that can happen, the force will have to have the character to face the public and summon up the strength to say sorry.
It will take even more strength for the families of the victims to forgive them.
Click here for more about the Hillsborough Disaster.