Every last detail of the Hillsborough story breaks my heart – as a police officer; as a lifelong Liverpool supporter; as a human being.
As a human catastrophe, it is amongst the most vivid and terrible of my lifetime – in this country at least. It is the story of ninety-six people who went to see a football match and didn’t come home. It is the story of hundreds more who were injured; of thousands more who were there. And it is the story of a group of families faced with a kind of grief – drawn out over decades – that is beyond the experience or imagining of most of us.
As a British policing catastrophe, it is right down there amongst the worst of them. The headlines of recent days offer deeply uncomfortable reading for any police officer: evidence of individual deception and institutional collusion – compounded over years and perpetuated by the very people who are supposed to protect us. It is no wonder that even good people begin to doubt us.
Society has every right to expect higher standards of police officers than they do of anyone else. That is because of the promise each of us made – to serve without fear or favour – and the powers each of us has been given. Where we betray that promise or abuse those powers, it is absolutely right that we are held to account. No right thinking Copper would argue otherwise.
But there’s another reason why Hillsborough breaks my heart – and that is the impact it has had (and will continue to have) for every good police officer in this country.
There are tens of thousands of them – and they have been dragged into the mire by the reported actions of their colleagues.
I don’t doubt that there were good police officers on duty that fateful Sheffield afternoon – people who remain haunted by what happened there. And I don’t doubt that there are good police officers on duty in South Yorkshire today.
It was only last month that a Sheffield PC came within moments and millimetres of losing her life as she confronted an axe wielding maniac. She was there because she had answered a call for help from a member of the public. And she is a hero of our time.
Policing finds itself in a deeply difficult place.
There can be no avoiding the sins of the past – and, indeed, those of the present – and there can be no avoiding the urgent need to confront them head on.
But, as we acknowledge these painful realities, we need also to remember the officers who are out there right now: saving lives, finding the lost, protecting the vulnerable, confronting the violent, pursuing the dangerous.
Because the best of them are the best of us all.