Gross misconduct: Damning verdict on Hillsborough police chief Norman Bettison

WEST Yorkshire’s former chief constable would have a case to answer for gross misconduct over his dealings with his police authority following the publication of a damning report on the Hillsborough disaster if he was still a serving officer, the police watchdog said today.

Former Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police Sir Norman Bettison.

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Sir Norman Bettison attempted to influence public perception as the West Yorkshire Police Authority was deciding whether to refer him to the Independent Police Complaints Commission following the Hillsborough Independent Panel report last year, the Commission has concluded.

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It said: “While it was evident Sir Norman made no attempt to prevent the referral happening, the IPCC investigation concluded that he attempted to manipulate the public perception of the referral process for his own self-interest.”

The commission said its finding would justify Sir Norman’s dismissal if he was still a serving chief constable.

But lawyers for the former chief constable said that the way the IPCC conducted its inquiry “calls into question the fairness of such a process”.

Sir Norman is facing a broader IPCC inquiry into his conduct following the 1989 disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans died at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground in South Yorkshire.

Today’s report focused on an allegation that he had tried to influence the police authority when it was considering this broader referral to the commission.

The IPCC said it independently investigated his actions in relation to the process by which complaints about his involvement in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster were referred to the commission.

The former chief, who has always denied any wrongdoing, resigned from his post in West Yorkshire last year.

The IPCC said in a statement today: “The IPCC concluded Sir Norman had a case to answer for discreditable conduct and abuse of authority, breaches which, if proven in a disciplinary hearing, would amount to gross misconduct as they would justify dismissal.

“However, as Sir Norman left the police service in October 2012 he cannot face a disciplinary hearing in which the evidence could be tested.

“Instead, the IPCC is publishing its findings for the public to judge.”

An investigation into Sir Norman’s conduct in the period following the 1989 disaster, when he was involved in South Yorkshire Police’s inquiry into what happened, is ongoing.

IPCC deputy chair Deborah Glass said: “The Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath have become synonymous in the public consciousness with allegations of police attempts to cover up the truth, manipulate messages and deflect blame.

“Sir Norman is facing investigation in relation to allegations that he played a key part in this.

“We do not pre-judge the findings of that investigation. However, given the effect that those allegations have had on the public perception of him and policing generally, his attempts to manipulate and manage the perception of the referral of complaints about him, for his own self-interest, is particularly concerning.

“It is also conduct that falls far short of what should be expected of any chief constable.

“It was the IPCC’s view at the start of the investigation, as it was the view of his Police Authority, that Sir Norman’s actions, if proven, fell so far short of what is expected of a chief constable that dismissal would be justified. The evidence uncovered during the investigation supports that view.

“While we cannot bring this case to misconduct proceedings, we can publish the evidence and our conclusions, so that the public can judge for themselves.

“This case should also serve as a salutary reminder to chief officers everywhere of how much public confidence in policing is damaged when the conduct of leaders is called into question.”

Sir Norman was a chief inspector with South Yorkshire Police at the time of the disaster.

He attended the match at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground as a spectator but, after the tragedy, he was involved in the subsequent force investigation.

His involvement in that inquiry has provoked waves of allegations and criticism from the families of those who died and has dogged his career, which included a stint as the chief constable of Merseyside.

Following the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report last year, Sir Norman was referred to the IPCC over claims that he gave misleading information in the wake of the tragedy and that he tried to influence West Yorkshire Police Authority’s decision-making process in relation to the referral.

He resigned as the West Yorkshire chief in October, saying it was because the controversy had become a “distraction to policing in West Yorkshire”.

In a statement issued through the police authority at the time, Sir Norman said he had never blamed the fans for the tragedy.

And he dismissed a claim first highlighted by Merseyside MP Maria Eagle that he had once bragged to a fellow student in a pub about “concocting” the police version of events, describing the allegation as “both incredible and wrong”.

At the time of his resignation, Sir Norman said the police authority and some of the candidates in the forthcoming Police and Crime Commissioner elections made it clear that they wanted him to go.

Last month, Home Secretary Theresa May promised a crackdown on police who avoid disciplinary hearings because they resign or retire.

Mrs May said proposed reforms would mean such proceedings will be completed regardless of the officer’s departure.

In today’s full report, the IPCC said: “A finding that Sir Norman has a case to answer is not a finding that he is guilty.

“Such a finding could only follow a formal misconduct hearing in which the evidence would be tested and, as Sir Norman is no longer a police officer, such a hearing cannot be held.

“I am very mindful of the public concerns around officers resigning or retiring while under investigation, thereby escaping a misconduct sanction.

“I do find it unacceptable that officers take that option rather than facing up to the case against them.

“On 23 October 2012 Sir Norman announced his intention to retire with immediate effect. This decision was not under investigation, but it seems that, in this case, Sir Norman’s departure was a direct result of actions by the Police Authority.

“It is clear from the evidence provided by both Sir Norman and the chief executive of the authority that, in fact, the police authority required Sir Norman to resign on 24 October 2012, and it was not Sir Norman’s wish to go at this time.”

According to today’s report, the key issue was Sir Norman’s desire to refer himself to the IPCC and, therefore, control the process.

The report concluded: “It is concerning that his first thoughts appear to have been to protect his own position.

“On the balance of probabilities it is considered that the evidence indicates that Sir Norman was trying to influence the decision-making of the Police Authority because he wanted the public to believe that he had referred himself to the IPCC, to avoid any public impression he had done something wrong.

“Sir Norman put his own reputation as an individual above the need to ensure that a proper and transparent process was followed.

“Sir Norman’s pre-occupation with what the public would think of him as an individual led him to try to adopt a process, and persuade others to adopt a process, which removed the independent consideration of the issues from the committee whose responsibility it was to make that decision.

“Instead, he was trying to present them with a ‘fait accompli’ that they could then endorse, rather than allow them to reach their own decisions without his influence.”

The IPCC found that, in doing this, Sir Norman exploited his privileged access to the police authority.

It said: “It is accepted that, following the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report, Sir Norman was under a great deal of media scrutiny and criticism.

“While he may have wanted to try to mitigate that criticism, the way he tried to do that was not acceptable.

“His actions... do not suggest that he was seeking to avoid an investigation of his actions regarding the Hillsborough disaster.

“Instead, they can more accurately be described as seeking to manipulate the referral process and the way that referral and the investigation following that referral were seen by the public.”

Reacting to the report, Margaret Aspinall, of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, suggested Sir Norman should be stripped of his knighthood, police pension and other accolades.

She said: “In the IPCC’s own words, this was gross misconduct and, in my mind, that is a very serious offence and the fact that he resigned should not mean that this report is the end of it.

“We want to see him stripped of his honours - his knighthood and his Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University.

“I believe he resigned to protect his pension and his behaviour has shown he is not deserving of that pension.”

Mrs Aspinall, who lost her 18-year-old son, James, in the disaster, added that today’s report was “another step on the road to justice” for the 96 victims.