A bunker mentality?

Phil Parry looks at how recent news events have again highlighted issues around policing.

The Hillsborough disaster has once again thrown the spotlight on the conduct of the police with Wales, sadly, playing a leading role. The focus must of course be on those 96 victims of the 1989 disaster and their families and friends who have fought such a long battle for justice.

Only now has it been officially concluded that those people were unlawfully killed and there were terrible police failings.

The Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham has said “those responsible must be held to account”.

The chief constable of South Yorkshire Police, David Crompton, has been suspended and his brief replacement Dawn Copley stepped down after only 48 hours when it was revealed she, too, is under investigation for events during her former role at Greater Manchester Police. Now a new ‘interim’ chief constable has been appointed from the North Yorkshire force. Dave Jones says he is ‘aware’ of the challenges he faces’. He has admitted the Hillsborough inquests highlighted the need to ‘explore the circumstances of such significant events.

It has been revealed that the same police officers were involved in both the aftermath of Orgreave and Hillsborough.

Now the police watchdog the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has launched an investigation into allegations a former South Yorkshire Police press officer was asked to ‘spin’ the news about Hillsborough. Hayley Court claims she was asked to encourage the media to report evidence in the inquests which was favourable to the police, including the so-called fact that fans were partly to blame. She has said she was told to “get the media together and tell them what to write.”

The future of South Yorkshire Police remains in doubt.

My brother, David, was a press photographer at Hillsborough and had to give a statement to the police afterwards. He was shown pictures he had sent to London but had not been published because they were too graphic. He said:  “The police were far more concerned to stop pictures being taken than saving lives.”

It brought it all home to me again how the police sometimes behave.

During the 1980s there were a number of high-profile miscarriage of justice cases in Wales, some of which I was involved in exposing. There were striking similarities, unfortunately, with what happened after Hillsborough.

At the time there was a kind of us and them, ‘bunker mentality’ in the police, where they could not admit to mistakes by colleagues, so they covered them up.

In South Wales a large number of honest and hard-working officers were doing their jobs, but a number were not and innocent people were imprisoned as a result. In 1988 three young men, Michael O’Brien, Darren Hall and Ellis Sherwood were wrongly jailed for the murder of a Cardiff newsagent, Phillip Saunders. On December 17 1999 the Court of Appeal finally quashed their conviction. They had spent 11 long years in prison for something they did not do. The men became known as The Cardiff Newsagent Three to differentiate them from The Cardiff Three which was another shocking miscarriage of justice case in the 1980s. We broadcast a BBC Wales Week In, Week Out investigation of the Newsagent Three case and it helped secure their release. During my research it suddenly dawned on me that not only had these police officers made a terrible mistake in jailing the men, but that the officers KNEW they were innocent. This was awful.

It was bad enough that three men were imprisoned wrongly, but this now offered a terrible insight into human nature.

The Cardiff Three case was also one where men were jailed wrongly. They were accused of murdering Lynette White on February 14 1988. Altogether five men were held in prison during a lengthy remand, and this is often forgotten. In 2003 Jeffrey Gafoor finally pleaded guilty to the crime. There was forensic evidence linking him to the scene and he admitted what he had done. He had acted alone he said, and even issued an apology to the men who had been jailed wrongly for what he had done. Yet on the very morning of Gafoor’s appearance in court a senior serving South Wales Police officer told me the three men who had been jailed were “involved” in the murder. I thought this was truly appalling. It went to the heart of the problem. Not only had terrible mistakes been made but the police still thought they were in the right. Cover ups happen in that kind of atmosphere and all institutions are at fault.

This is one of the reasons why it has taken so long for the truth to emerge about the Hillsborough disaster.

The ‘bunker mentality’ here had terrible consequences.

Phil Parry is Editor of the investigative website, The Eye.

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