Last week, over four nights, I watched the television docu-drama Anne on ITV.
This was the story of Anne Williams, whose 15-year-old son Kevin died in the Hillsborough football disaster and who, for almost twenty five years, battled to discover the truth about what had happened to him and the others who died. The official version was that no one had survived the crush in a pen at one end of the ground after 3.15pm. It would eventually emerge that Kevin and forty others had been alive after that time and might have been saved if people had acted differently. It was a gentle but harrowing telling of a mother’s story, gripping yet unbearable.
It stirred old memories for me. On the day, 15 April 1989, I heard on Radio Sheffield that clergy and social workers were wanted at the Hillsborough Boys’ Club in Hammerton Road to help the friends and families of Liverpool supporters who would be signposted there as they sought information about loved ones. I was among the first to arrive and was immediately asked to stay with a married couple who were waiting for news of their son. They had been at the match, but in one of the stands. They had watched with growing concern the horror unfolding in the terrace at the Leppings Lane end where their son was. They didn’t know whether he had been injured or not. I was with them for the rest of the day.
I recall the initial chaos as the Boys’ Club gradually filled with people – at first anxious supporters and friends, then later relatives coming across from Merseyside. Police officers came and went. This was a time before mobile phones, so no one had any information about what might be happening. The only people who were in touch with the outside world at all were the police and their crackling radios.
For hours there was little to report. Each time new people came into the building hopes either rose or fell. Someone said they thought they had seen my couple’s son alive, but they couldn’t be sure. Someone else arrived to say they had seen bodies laid out on the pitch. The police told us to stay where we were as the injured were being taken to several different hospitals. The emotions of the waiting families were mainly frozen and numb – then gripped with sudden anxiety and fear. We were so grateful when the Salvation Army came with tea.
In the evening I went with the couple to the Northern General Hospital where we thought their son might have been taken. The hospital had been overwhelmed. Records were hastily scribbled on scraps of paper. We went from ward to ward giving the boy’s name and description. Finally, a ward sister said they had seen him; he was alright and had been sent home. I said goodbye to the couple, who were offered a lift back to Liverpool. Their emotions were now very mixed: relief that their son had survived, but deep sadness and sorrow that this was clearly not the case for everyone.
We had no idea then that the number who died would be 96 (now 97) and that almost thirty years later in 2016 the jury at a second set of coroner’s inquests would find that they had been ‘unlawfully killed’.
We always say, and often we say it too easily, that we will learn the lessons of incidents that have such a profound impact. Many lessons have had to be painfully learnt from Hillsborough, not least by the police. But two more things should be done and this goes beyond policing to the public sector more generally – as we saw after the Grenfell Tower fire, for example. We need first to have in place a legal duty on those in authority to tell the truth about what has happened. And second, we need the bereaved to have the same access to legal help as those in authority, should that be necessary. Both of these are now referred to as the Hillsborough Law – which I support.
The bereaved have pain enough, but not being able to find out the truth about how their loved ones died is the cruellest outcome of all.
Low visibility, high impact
These days there are a number of different routes whereby someone can join the police service. Last week a new one opened in South Yorkshire – specifically for people with degrees who are interested in being detectives: the Detective Degree Holder Entry Programme.
There is a national shortage of detectives as well as a local one and this is a unique opportunity for people to join the service directly as a detective. If you have family members or friends, or children of family or friends, who might be interested, I urge you to let them know. Needless to say, it is also a chance to increase the number of those from our various ethnic minority communities.
I notice that in our current consultations on the precept, a number of people are again saying that they are prepared to pay a little more towards policing provided there is ‘greater police visibility’, by which they mean more officers on the streets in high visibility jackets. I don’t doubt that has some deterrent effect, and there will be more this year. But there is little point in having more bobbies on the beat if there is no one to investigate any crimes they come across. And there is nothing the bobby on the beat can do about crimes that are being committed more and more on the internet.
When crimes are committed, we need them to be speedily and thoroughly investigated and offenders prosecuted. We need detectives.
There are three weeks to get applications in and a recruitment event will be held on Microsoft Teams on 17 January. For more information visit the South Yorkshire Police website.
Stay safe and well.