Hillsborough: Digging The Dirt
November 17, 2012
by Martin Odoni
Excerpts from the Report of The Hillsborough Independent Panel, published September 12th 2012; –
“2.5.111 A solicitor involved in the Hillsborough inquests disclosed a document to the Panel showing that criminal record checks were conducted selectively on some of the deceased who had recorded blood alcohol levels. To protect the privacy of the deceased the Panel has decided not to make public the document but to describe the process through which an attempt was made to establish links between blood alcohol levels and previous criminal convictions.
“2.5.112 The document indicates that a Police National Computer (PNC) check was conducted on all who died at Hillsborough for whom a blood alcohol reading above zero was recorded. It includes a handwritten list of the names, dates of birth, blood alcohol readings and home addresses of 51 of the deceased and provides screen-prints apparently drawn from the PNC. A summary of the results appears on the front page, establishing the number ‘with cons’ (convictions).
“2.5.113 The document was not formally part of the West Midlands or South Yorkshire Police inquiries and there is no record in the documents provided by either force or by the Coroner. There is no record of who conducted the checks or precisely when the checks occurred. The National Policing Improvement Agency, the organisation responsible for the PNC, confirmed to the Panel that information has not been retained within the PNC.
2.5.114 It is the Panel’s view that criminal record checks were carried out on those of the deceased with recorded blood alcohol levels in an attempt to impugn personal reputations. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that this inappropriate – and possibly unlawful – exercise was used in the investigations, inquiries or inquests.”
2.7.6 The first writs seeking compensation for injuries sustained at Hillsborough were issued and served on [South Yorkshire Police] and [Sheffield Wednesday Football Club] on 18 April 19184.108.40.206 Documents disclosed to the Panel reveal that while there is no record of a response from SWFC, [South Yorkshire Police] undertook criminal records checks on the claimants. The purpose of these checks, on the Police National Computer and with the Criminal Record Office, remains unclear.
(Highlighted emphases mine.)
An interesting claim I have seen on an internet forum is that it is normal police practise to perform National Computer checks on people who have died. If this were true, one of the revelations of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel that has caused some of the most serious outrage – that Police National Computer checks were conducted into the criminal records of those who died – would perhaps be cast in a somewhat benign light. After all, when could standard procedure ever be seen as outrageous?
But is it true that these checks are standard procedure when there is a death?
Well, not exactly, no. They are not formally forbidden as such, but as a rule, they are only conducted on the deceased in the event that their death is suspicious e.g. a possible murder, when trying to find a motive, such as a ‘revenge killing’. Only by a very slack definition of the word ‘suspicious’ can this possibly apply to the deaths at the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989.
When analysing the aftermath of Hillsborough, it is not the practise of the checks in themselves that has caused such shudders of disgust, but the very unclear reasons for conducting them, and more importantly by far, the highly irregular manner in which they were done. Firstly, there are, and have always been, very tight restrictions over who may perform such a check and when. Police officers, even in high authority within a particular force, are not free just to tap into the database whenever they feel like it. Nor should they be, for it is an immensely powerful tool that can be easily abused for personal gain. So no access to the database is allowed without proper authorisation, and the details of every request for access are stringently recorded, including which officer is making the request, the reason for making the request, when the request is made, whether permission is granted or withheld, when the check is carried out, and what information is gleaned from the check.
The National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) oversees the process, and they are also the agency that performs the check on behalf of the requesting officer. What is so disturbing in the Hillsborough case, as highlighted in the excerpts above, is that the NPIA does not appear to have performed the checks on the Hillsborough victims, and no known record has been kept of the NPIA receiving a request for access. They appear to have known nothing about it. Someone performed the checks who had no authority to perform them, who kept them secret, and who did not keep a central record of them. That any information accrued does not appear to have been used perhaps deodorises the business somewhat, but even so, the simple reality that the checks were done by people who had no right to conduct them still has very serious ethical and security implications.
Contrary to what many people seem to assume, it is not definite that the South Yorkshire Police conducted the checks. It is entirely possible that the West Midlands Police were responsible, or it might even have been another agency involved such as the South Yorkshire Coroner’s Office, but as yet we have no clear indication of who did it. But what we do know is that, in the way they were done, the PNC checks were disturbingly irregular, and probably illegal.
The Independent Panel’s conclusion that the checks were performed in order to find mud to sling at the victims may sound a little premature at first, but to my mind, not enough has been made so far of another aspect of this business – an aspect that casts the PNC checks on the deceased in a doubly suspicious light. The injured and bereaved of Hillsborough lodged claims for compensation against the South Yorkshire force, who responded by running even more PNC checks, this time on the claimants. Although these checks were conducted in accordance with correct procedure, up to a point, the purpose of them was still not recorded, and try as I might, I cannot think of what possible justified reason there could be for making them in the circumstances. I can only imagine corrupt ones i.e. they were trying to use the unfair advantage they had of access to the PNC to try and find some dirt with which to smear the claimants and perhaps make their claims look opportunistic and greedy.
With this in mind, the ‘mystery’ checks on the deceased fit an uncomfortably dirty pattern, and yes, the South Yorkshire Police are established as the chief suspects.
This is yet another chapter in the history of the Hillsborough Disaster that raises unsettling questions about the way the UK is policed. The PNC has long been a point of concern for civil rights groups because of the power it puts in the hands of the police. While there are safeguards in place, and they have been enhanced and improved upon since the late-1980’s, abuses still occur, especially when the police are defending against accusations of misconduct. (See the reckless Mohammed Kohar shooting in 2006, and the suspiciously-timed accusations of possessing child pornography that were hurled at him in the days that followed.) It gives the police a very powerful weapon with which to attack people who accuse them of mistreatment. That a lengthy series of checks could be conducted without the agency responsible for maintaining the database even being aware of them is truly frightening.
When such frightening, unaccountable policing can be defended as ‘standard procedure’, something is very, very wrong.
Other articles about the Hillsborough Disaster; –