A report into the experiences of families of people who died as a result of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster is a damning indictment of key institutions.
The report, by the Right Reverend James Jones and commissioned by the Home Office, was released today. It comes some 28 years after the disaster that killed 96 Liverpool football fans at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield.
Bereaved relatives describe their treatment at the hands of the police in the wake of the disaster. Jones said their experiences “demonstrate a real and continuing need for change”.
Evidence in the report showed a “rudeness, thoughtlessness and a lack of empathy” from officers.
Becky Shah, whose mum Inger Shah died in the disaster, described how a friend had to identify her body. “He told me South Yorkshire police officers asked if he was ‘shagging my mum’,” she told the report.
One family member said the process of identifying victims was “traumatic” and “cruel”. Families were made to look at a wall of photographs of bodies, sometimes when police already knew their relative was dead.
Some described victims being covered with “bin bags”. Bereaved mother Anne Burkett said the dead “were treated as though they didn’t matter”. Bereaved mum Brenda Fox simply said, “We felt we were treated like scum.”
“The police’s priority was to put a plan in place to protect officers and not families,” said bereaved father Barry Devonside.
Jones said the police showed an “instinctive prioritisation of the reputation of an organisation” over being held to account.
Families also described police later visiting unannounced or turning up in numbers and creating an “intimidating” environment.
Jones said that information provided by the College of Policing “indicates that significant progress has been made” in police behaviour. But he added, “Some of the issues faced by the Hillsborough families persist.”
For instance barrister Terry Munyard told the report that some officers still tell grieving relatives that the body of their loved one “belongs to the coroner”.
Families also had to deal with hostile media. Dorothy Griffiths, sister of Vincent Fitzsimmons, said, “I opened the newspaper only to find that they had printed the blood results from all the victims showing the alcohol levels.
“They had even included the details of children who died. It was almost as if we were sub-human.”
Dave Golding, nephew of Arthur Horrocks, described being harangued by the press. He said the press could only have got his name “through the hospital admission records or from the police”.
During the initial inquest in 1991, overseen by Dr Stefan Popper, families had to fund representation themselves. There was much criticism of the inquest.
Danny Gordon, uncle of Kevin Williams, said, “Dr Popper said to my nephew’s step-father, ‘I don’t know why you are upset he wasn’t even your son’.”
Barry Devonside described leaving the council chamber once Popper had delivered his verdicts of accidental death. “I saw Dr Popper’s office. The door was open and I could see police officers inside laughing.
“I then saw two further police officers emerge either from a lift or stairs. They were carrying crates of wine and beer and they took it into the office. They were having a celebration.
“Dr Popper was in there with the police. An officer saw me and slammed the door in my face.”
Many families said the more recent inquests, which delivered verdicts of unlawful killing, were much better. But Jones’ report pointed out that South Yorkshire Police lawyers still made no “acknowledgement of responsibility”.
Even Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire, Alan Billings, said that the force “still had a way to go in moving to a place where it was not defensive”.
Families felt the state backed the cops and other institutions before the original verdicts were quashed. Jones said this was “unarguably true” as the state funded public bodies but not the families.
The report notes that the original Taylor report into the disaster in 1990 said police “were not prepared to concede they were in any respect at fault”.
Becky Shah said the final report was less critical than Taylor’s interim report. “I believe Taylor was leant on but who by?” she asked.
The Stuart-Smith scrutiny, set up by Labour in 1997, was supposed to look at whether there was any new relevant evidence. It concluded that there was no basis for a reopening of the inquiry or a new inquest.
Paul Robinson, brother of Steven Robinson, said the scrutiny “was set up to fail”.
Jones’ report also looked at criminal and disciplinary investigations, including the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the ongoing Operation Resolve.
Anne Burkett, mother of Peter Burkett, said she viewed video from the pens in which the crush took place for Operation Resolve. She described “a complete lack of sympathy”.
Others said Operation Resolve visits family homes unannounced and that staff had made “insensitive comments” or made “mistakes” when identifying victims.
There was “frustration” that cops can retire to avoid misconduct charges and that officers can refuse to answer questions.
The report demands publicly funded legal representation for bereaved families at inquests where public bodies are legally represented. It says there should be an end to “public bodies spending limitless sums” to buy representation.
Jones said that “there would never have been any redress” for the 96 without the “determination and endurance” of the families.
He added, “But the fact that this level of resolve and persistence was necessary demonstrates a systemic failure of the processes that should work to bring about accountability and justice.”