JUST after 3 p.m. on Saturday 15 April 1989, I was driving a
police patrol car around the Norfolk Park estate in Sheffield, when
I was instructed by radio to return to my station and join others
to be transported to Hillsborough Football Ground. The message
said that the Liverpool fans were "rioting".
I have known for 23 years that this assessment of the situation
was wrong, and the events of this past week or so have
re-emphasised this, and have taken this wrongness to a different
When I arrived at Hillsborough that day, I was sent with my
colleagues on to the pitch, into scenes of chaos. Some fans were
still placing their loved ones on advertising hoardings and
running them off the pitch in search of medical treatment, and a
good many others were wandering around, bewildered by what was
happening. To a great extent, my only not-very-useful contribution
was to wander around, too, sharing their bewilderment.
I remember being deployed, with a number of others, in a line
across the pitch near the halfway line. This act of keeping the
fans of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest apart revealed something of
the mentality of the day: the much-feared hooligan violence was
expected to break out at any moment.
As it turned out, I ended up standing next to my cousin, also a
policeman who had been deployed to the ground. I remember his
telling me that he had heard that six people were dead, and I
recall my heart sinking at the thought.
Later that day, I found myself "protecting the scene" in the
Leppings Lane stand, amid twisted metal, litter, and the ghosts of
the day - and gradually the reality of the extent of the death toll
began to be revealed. When we were driving away from the ground
later, a group of fans shouted "Murderers!" as we passed, and I
wondered how the keepers of the law could have earned this
WE were given the opportunity not to go into work the following
day, so that we could sort out our minds. As a fledgling Christian,
I took this chance, and went to church. There, I cried. I would
guess that a part of me was crying for the dead fans, but some of
my tears were for the organisation I worked for, which was already
starting to get the blame, and some of them were for myself,
because I had felt so inept and useless on the day. I was 24 years
I heard colleagues whom I believed in say that the fans had
been drunk; I read the papers that backed them up; and I found it
hard to see half of Anfield covered in flowers. By then, I had
convinced myself that the people of Liverpool had brought this on
themselves. "No one forced them into the ground, did they?" When I
remember how many times I said this, all those years ago, I cringe
The Taylor report, in 1990, which placed much of the blame on
the police, did little to change my view, because, by then, I had
decided that it was the easy line to blame the public servants who
could not answer back. But gradually, through the years, as more
and more was said, my view began to change.
ON ONE level, my justification became a little more
theological. People on the day made mistakes. They were fallible,
just like the rest of us, and little was served by bringing them
into the public square to flog them again. Part of me simply wanted
the whole thing to go away, because nothing new could be said.
It is, however, a feature of our institutions that, although
they are simply gatherings of fallible human beings, they find it
hard to admit mistakes. It is not only about fear of litigation,
either: it is about that pseudo-military phrase "closing ranks" -
protecting your own.
We can castigate the Police and the military for this, but let
us not forget the incidents we could quote from the National Health
Service, or even the Church, when the innocent have suffered, and
the guilty have been protected. How often do we hear
self-justification, when repentance is required?
It now appears that those at the centre of events on that
dreadful day not only sought to justify the actions of their
organisation, but also actively doctored the evidence, using the
authority they held over rank-and-file officers. Repentance is not
obvious here, and forgiveness is hard to offer. Thus, some of
those who made mistakes, who were fallible and broken, may have
been criminal as well.
IT IS also important to recognise the central part played by
stereotyping. When I was in the police, some in the criminal
fraternity had the acronym "ACAB" ("All Coppers Are Bastards")
tattooed on their knuckles, which played to an extreme stereotype.
This, however, pales into insignificance when placed alongside some
of the prejudice that the people of Liverpool have faced through
the years. Some of this prejudice, I believe, underscores much of
the tragedy of Hillsborough and its injustices.
I am sorry today for the times that I have joined in this
prejudice, and I am sorry for those occasions when I have grown
tired of the Hillsborough families' cry for justice, and hoped that
they would simply get over it. I am sorry, too, that on the day,
somehow, I did not do more - although I still do not know what
that more would have been.
I am content that the victims of Hillsborough have finally been
accorded the honour of being the "innocent victims" that they were.
I hope that some new light and new life may flow from that, and
that, as a result, we might be better at coming to greet the people
we encounter each day as the people that they are, and not as those
we prejudge and assume them to be.
My role at Hillsborough was so peripheral in the end that I
never gave a statement, and thus, at least, nothing I said was ever
doctored. Fourteen months after those events, I left the Police,
and began the journey to ordination and a life of service to
another "innocent victim". I live with the hope that I have served
him better than I served those at Hillsborough, both on that
fateful day and in the years that have followed. I pray that, as
today I offer my repentance, some sense of forgiveness will
The Revd Alan Bashforth, formerly PC 2204 of the South
Yorkshire Police Force, is Vicar of St Agnes and Mithian with Mount
Hawke, in the diocese of Truro.