There is a recurring pattern when policing fails. It is evident in a number of cases: the Stephen Lawrence murder; the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes; the fatal assault on Ian Tomlinson; the notorious miscarriages of justice from the 1980s and 1990s, and now Hillsborough.
The pattern unfolds like this. First, there is the moment where things go wrong. The initial emergency situation is misinterpreted, causing police intervention to amplify the harm. Then comes an official definition of reality that seeks to suppress acknowledgement of any problems or failings. When this is challenged by a narrative “from below,” police and their allies engage in a collective denial of the credibility and plausibility of this account and its proponents. A long period of campaigning ensues featuring repeated attempts to overturn the official account. At some point, political will cedes ground and a public inquiry is established, affording the power to revise the official history and rewrite the past. The process concludes with contrition and the promise that lessons have been or will be learned.
So what lessons should we take from Hillsborough? The first is a recognition that it did contribute to the professionalisation of public order policing. This process of professionalisation was initially triggered by the police capability gaps illuminated by the riots and miner’s strikes in the 1980s. It involved a move from using ordinary police officers on an ad-hoc basis, to specialist squads who work and train together. It also introduced a more structured chain of “gold,” “silver” and “bronze” commanders, responsible for strategic, tactical and operational command decisions respectively. Hillsborough’s contribution was to extend these from the policing of political protests and more spontaneous street disturbances, to include larger sporting events.
The ramifications for contemporary policing are likely to be even more profound. Policing’s inconvenient truth is that there is a tendency for police to only “reform by crisis.” Significant police reform, in terms of altering what happens “on the ground” seems to require a shock to the system. Only at such moments of public crisis are the norms and standard operating procedures sufficiently destabilised that they can be directly reshaped. The coalition government is expending a lot of effort on re-landscaping the key institutions of policing through the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners and establishing the College of Policing, but history suggests these will ultimately be less influential than events.
But it is the finding of collective denial and fabrication by police within the Hillsborough Panel’s report that is most disturbing. For compared with 1989, we are simultaneously both more and less at risk of similar problems recurring. In an information-saturated landscape, permeated by social media and 24/7 broadcasting, the ability of police to suppress and deny stories of incompetence and to unjustly accuse others of wrongdoing is reduced. But the speed of these communication channels means that when disasters do occur, rumours and conspiracies frequently start to circulate before the authorities have a chance to make sense of what actually has transpired.
We might therefore distinguish between “disinformation rumours” and “misinformation rumours.” The former are deliberate and malignant. The latter are more benign, occurring under conditions of uncertainty as people struggle with incomplete information. Both can challenge the reputation of the police service. But the key learning point for the police must be that, in the contemporary information environment, they absolutely must resist the temptation to hide discreditable facts and spread disinformation rumours to deflect attention from their own problems. In the chaos and panic of an emergency, people will forgive police if they unintentionally spread misinformation. They will be less forgiving of deliberate disinformation rumours.
In policing’s event-driven world, things go wrong quite often—it’s almost inevitable given the complexities of the work. Senior officers may fear the “reputational risk” associated with increased transparency, but in today’s information environment the truth will out—eventually. When things go wrong, admitting an inadequate response damages public trust and confidence. In the long term though, inadequacy is less corrosive than illegality.