RETIRED South Yorkshire Police officers may be put off from giving evidence to the new investigations into the Hillsborough tragedy because of speculative statements by senior politicians “and others who should have known better”, a new welfare group has claimed.
The names of more than 1,400 officers on duty at the time of the 1989 disaster have been passed on by the force to a police watchdog ahead of two major investigations and a new inquest into the death of 96 Liverpool fans.
They could be asked to give evidence about the events that led to the tragedy and the subsequent cover-up, although new rules compelling police to take part in investigations led by the Independent Police Complaints Commission do not apply to retired officers.
A new branch of the National Association of Retired Police Officers set up to represent those involved in the inquiry says its members are being encouraged to “co-operate fully” with the new investigations.
The IPCC is this month due to start interviewing officers whose statements about the tragedy were altered, many to remove or change negative comments about the policing of the FA Cup semi-final at the home of Sheffield Wednesday.
But chairman Mick Brookfield said some retired officers were concerned about becoming involved because of media coverage since the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report which he says “has indicated a bias heavily against the officers involved”.
In a letter to the Yorkshire Post, he said: “We hold the view that it is in the interests of South Yorkshire Police and the families of the deceased that the investigation has access to all available evidence.
“Our concern, however, is that media coverage of events since the Hillsborough Independent Report was published will not have helped to encourage their desire to become involved.
“Some of the publicity regarding, in particular, statements by senior politicians and others who should know better, has been disgraceful and entirely inappropriate, especially in the light of the forthcoming inquiries.
“Far wiser to withhold such unjustified and speculative comment until the result of the inquiry is known rather than acting in a manner which frankly gives the impression that the result is a foregone conclusion.”
The new inquiries are taking place after the Hillsborough Independent Panel studied thousands of documents and reported there had been a huge cover-up of what happened at Hillsborough and its aftermath.
The report, published in September, led to an apology by David Cameron for “indefensible” conduct over Hillsborough by South Yorkshire Police and to the 1991 inquest verdict of accidental death being quashed in December.
As well as a new inquest, there is an IPCC-led investigation into allegations of a cover-up in the aftermath of the tragedy and a probe by former Durham chief constable Jon Stoddart focusing on the deaths themselves.
In his apology, Mr Cameron told the House of Commons the panel found the safety of the crowds at Hillsborough had been “compromised at every level”. He said “deficiencies” at the ground were well known and it failed to meet minimum safety standards.
The report said police and emergency services had made “strenuous attempts” to deflect the blame for the disaster on to fans.
Mr Brookfield, who is also chairman of the Sheffield branch of NARPO, said there was “an enormous depth of sympathy for the deceased and their families” and that the claim that police blamed fans for their own deaths was “a myth created and perpetuated by the media”. But he said he was “seriously concerned” about the welfare of some of his members, some of whom have been retired for more than two decades or are “ill and infirm”.
He said: “Our members now face the prospect of being called to give evidence at the inquests and attend interviews in connection with the inquiry into events which took place over 24 years ago.
“We are following developments closely with a view to doing whatever possible to support our members throughout this difficult period.”
In its report, the Hillsborough Independent Panel revealed that 164 police statements had been altered, 116 of them to remove or change negative comments about the policing of the match.
The IPCC has revealed it has identified an additional 55 police officers whose statements on the tragedy may have been amended.
The watchdog said it would start interviewing officers who gave the statements this month as part of joint work with Mr Stoddart’s team. Its Hillsborough Contact Team had received more than 230 pieces of correspondence since October, more than 50 relating to statements.
Deborah Glass, IPCC deputy chairwoman, said: “The IPCC knows the people who have contacted us are the tip of the iceberg.”