Police chief who never stepped up to give evidence
IT took David Duckenfield the best part of three decades to apologise for his role in the Hillsborough disaster and the disgraceful lies that followed. The retired chief superintendent had been ordered to give evidence to fresh inquest hearings in March 2015 and claimed it had taken him 26 years to face the truth – and even then only with the help of doctors.
His lawyers told his trial that Duckenfield had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder soon after the crush that killed 96 fans and could not give evidence because he would make an unreliable witness. They said he had been taking anti-depressants for 27 years, suffered nightmares, high blood pressure and selfmedicated with whiskey to cope with flashbacks. He was said to suffer depression and memory lapses.
One expert told the court he would likely feel ‘re-traumatised’ if forced to answer questions about the disaster again.
But when giving evidence to the inquests in 2015, Duckenfield admitted he lied about fans forcing open an exit gate to enter the ground and added: ‘I apologise unreservedly to the families.’ Duckenfield, the court heard, told the Football Association that fans had gained entry by forcing open a gate. In fact, he had given the order to open the gate himself.
Duckenfield, the son of a steelworks foreman, joined the South yorkshire force in Sheffield, his home town, from grammar school at 16.
Within five years was the youngest detective ever recruited into CID.
By the age of 30, he was an inspector. At the time of the disaster, Duckenfield, 44, was a chief superintendent.
Although he had never commanded a match at Hillsborough before, he had policed major games there and was on duty for the 1981 FA Cup semi-final when 38 supporters were injured in a crush.
Duckenfield had also looked after other large crowd events, including a Bruce Springsteen concert and a rally by US evangelist Billy Graham. So when match commander Chief Superintendent Brian Mole was moved sideways for disciplinary reasons, Duckenfield was the natural choice to take over.
His appointment was unpopular among the rank and file, who viewed him as a bully and suspected his membership of the Freemasons had influenced his promotion. Duckenfield admitted he was a ‘disciplinarian’ and officers in the section he took over from Mole, claimed he told them their unit was a disgrace, that they were ‘useless, no good’ and ‘it was going to be his way’ and no other.
The second inquest had heard how Duckenfield briefed his officers at 10am on the morning of the semi-final, telling constables on the perimeter track that under no circumstances should they open the gates to the ‘pens’ – fenced off sections of terracing behind the goal – without permission from a senior officer.
By 2.45pm, thousands of Liverpool fans were still trying to get into the ground and pressure was growing outside the turnstiles. But Duckenfield failed to delay the kick-off. His barrister told the trial he eventually acceded to requests to open the gates to save lives.
‘It is arguably one of the biggest regrets of my life,’ Duckenfield told the inquest jury. He said he ‘froze’ rather than take charge of the terrible tragedy as it unfolded. His first thought was to call for police dogs and more manpower, instead of requesting ambulances.
Duckenfield was suspended on full pay four months after the disaster. He retired two years later on ill health grounds on an index-linked pension reportedly worth £23,000-a-year, which meant he avoided any disciplinary investigation by the then Police Complaints Authority.
He and his wife Ann, 76, who accompanied him every day of the trial, had moved to a £425,000 detached home, 230 miles from Sheffield, in Ferndown, Dorset.
There, Duckenfield kept a low profile for the best part of 15 years, playing golf and avoiding reporters who occasionally visited to ask for comment as the campaign for justice gathered momentum with the publication of the Independent Panel’s 2012 report and subsequent
quashing of the original inquests. The Duckenfields, who have two grown-up daughters have, in their own way, have served a kind of sentence. That is of little comfort to the families of the 96. Three other men – former Chief Superintendent Donald Denton, 80, former Detective Chief Inspector Alan Foster, 71, and retired solicitor Peter Metcalf, 68, who acted for South Yorkshire police – are due to stand trial in April charged with perverting the course of justice in relation to the alleged police cover-up following the tragedy.
Day of tragedy: Fans are lifted out of the crush at the Leppings Lane terrace
Silence: David Duckenfield at court this week. Inset In 1989