A police chief who oversaw amendments to officers’ statements after the Hillsborough disaster said it was “absolutely natural” for the force to defend itself, a court has heard.
Donald Denton told the court last week some changes were made to remove ambiguity, rather than in a “concerted” or “conspiratorial” effort to hide criticism. He was a chief superintendent with South Yorkshire Police (SYP) at the time of the 1989 disaster, which resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool football fans.
Denton, former detective chief inspector Alan Foster and former SYP solicitor Peter Metcalf are accused of making amendments to statements to minimise blame on the police. All deny perverting the course of justice.
The court in Salford heard a transcript from 1997 where Denton was asked why criticism of senior officers, but not of fans, had been removed from statements. Criticism was removed in evidence submitted to the 1990 inquiry.
In the transcript, Denton answered, “I think it would be fair to say that throughout the whole of this exercise—whilst there was nothing distinctly deliberate about it—the South Yorkshire Police at that time had their backs to the wall a little bit with public opinion against them.
“I think it was absolutely natural for them to concern themselves with defending themselves. It was not a fact that the police were trying to cover up. They weren't trying to cover up at all.”
Denton told the court, “At no time did I instruct anyone to undertake, nor would I have condoned, the amendment of statements for any improper motive, such as to frustrate or mislead the Taylor Inquiry, the inquests or any criminal or disciplinary investigation.”
The court also heard that Alan Foster admitted to making changes, but claimed he was “expected to obey order without question”.
In interviews in 2014 with the police watchdog, Foster said he was involved in “vetting” statements before they were passed to West Midlands Police. The force was appointed to gather evidence for the Taylor inquiry.
But he claims this vetting was “lawful”.
“At no time during my meeting with Mr Denton was I asked to materially alter factual content of any officers' accounts, nor would I have intentionally done so,” he said.
The court heard that a handwritten note, dated 10 May 1989, referred to Foster as “the action man” and said no statements would be released before being vetted.
Foster claims to have “no idea” what the letter meant. He said that he did not pressure any officers to change their statements.
“It may be different these days,” he claimed last week. “I find it so insulting to be even challenged on unprofessional activities and so on.”
A legal expert also told the court police had no duty to provide the “warts and all” truth to the 1990 public inquiry into the disaster.
Sir Robert Francis QC told the trial that as long as they were truthful, witnesses could choose what was shared.
Called by Peter Metcalf’s lawyers, Francis told the courts it was “the job of the lawyer to do their best for the client”.
He added it was “not unlawful to choose what to volunteer to a public inquiry, as long as it is not misleading”.
And the previous week the court heard that a former officer assumed his Hillsborough statement would be “magicked away” if he refused to sign an amended copy.
Maxwell Groome told investigators in 2014 that he was asked to write up his account of events from 15 April 1989.
Groome, who has since died, said he had visits from officers asking him to sign an amended version. He initially refused.
But on 30 May, 1989, Groome was called to see Foster, who crossed parts out of his statement. He reportedly said, “You can't say that because it is criticising the chain of command.”
Groome added, “I assumed my account would be magicked away or disappear in a box never to see the light of day again if I hadn't changed it.”
He told investigators in 2014 that he was “fed up of being badgered” so agreed to sign the new statement—feeling “pressured”.
The trial continues.