FOR some time, South Yorkshire Police has been in a very bad place. It has treated victims in a number of different circumstances and over many years in a shocking fashion – the ‘Battle of Orgreave’; the Hillsborough disaster; and in Rotherham as 1,400 girls suffered fearful abuse and their plight was ignored.
The officers and staff of today’s force desperately want to get to a better place where they can do their job of protecting the vulnerable and keeping all citizens safe. In order to do this, they need two things.
First, they need to understand and accept why they failed in the past. There must be no denial or turning away from difficult truths. And second, they need to win and keep the trust of the public. The public needs to have confidence that today’s force will not repeat any of the errors of the past and that attitudes have genuinely changed.
This was why the force’s response to the Hillsborough inquests was so critical. It was an important test as to whether the force really had learned lessons and was conducting itself differently.
On April 26, the jury concluded that the 96 who died at Hillsborough were unlawfully killed and the football supporters did not cause or contribute to their deaths. I agreed with the Chief Constable (David Crompton) that he should apologise on behalf of the force and neither he nor I would make any further statement.
An apology was made. Those who heard it thought it was not only for what had happened in the past, but also for those questions that were asked by the Chief Constable’s legal team at the inquests which touched on fan behaviour and had caused the families distress.
When MPs began to comment on the inquests, saying that the questioning had been insensitive and had prolonged proceedings unnecessarily, the Chief Constable was clear that he would be issuing a further statement and this was not up for debate.
The following day, just before the House of Commons debated the verdicts, the Chief Constable issued a second statement which sought to justify the questioning at the inquests. Many read this as an attempt to shift blame to others. It all served to undermine the integrity of the apology.
The statement was heard with dismay and anger by the Hillsborough families and elected members, both nationally and locally. In the Commons debate, the then home secretary, Theresa May, bluntly told the force to accept the verdicts of the jury. Some MPs called for the force to be disbanded or merged. There was talk of special measures.
The criticism of the Chief Constable intensified as the hours passed. Trust and confidence in the force began to drain away, nationally and locally. I started to receive calls and emails from members of the public appalled at what they had heard and read. In order to stop the criticism and stabilise the situation, I suspended the Chief Constable to consider his removal.
This then triggered a legal process which has been long – five months – and expensive. During that process, my actions were criticised by the chief Inspector of constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor, but unanimously endorsed by the local Police and Crime Panel, which consist of councillors and an independent member.
I also submitted myself for re-election and was emphatically returned. These local expressions of support are important for my role since Police and Crime Commissioners hold the force to account on behalf of the public.
I fervently hope that the Chief Constable will now accept that it is not in the interests of South Yorkshire Police – or the public of South Yorkshire – for this to be drawn out any longer through any further legal action. Both need this particular troubled period to come to an end.
There are still formidable challenges ahead.
The Hillsborough verdicts will have further consequences that have to be faced. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign may succeed in having an inquiry of some sort.
There are still those victims of non-recent child sexual exploitation who need to be identified and helped. All need to have confidence in today’s South Yorkshire Police if there are to be good outcomes.
What the public of South Yorkshire need is for the force to be stabilised. It has the chance for that now under its new Chief Constable, Stephen Watson. I am hopeful that before long we shall be able to say, truthfully, that South Yorkshire Police is in that better place where victims come before self-interest.
• Dr Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire.