By Iain Gould, Solicitor
A former chief constable of South Yorkshire, Richard Wells, who took charge in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, recently said that at the time police forces across Britain had ‘a culture of authoritarianism, defensiveness [and] excessive secrecy’.
Mr Wells statement followed publication of a report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel that found that senior police officers waged a concerted campaign, in the form of private briefings, redacted statements and stories fed to a Sheffield news agency, to “impugn the reputations of the dead” and save that of the South Yorkshire Police.
The current Chief Constable, David Crompton maintained in a BBC interview that “South Yorkshire Police is a very different place in 2012 from what it was 23 years ago”.
Is it? My client, Mr A would strongly disagree.
Attack by police dog
In February 2012, Mr. A, a 19 year-old football fan, was at Hillsborough to watch the derby between United and Sheffield Wednesday.
As he was walking home from the ground he passed a WPC with a police dog. Suddenly and without warning the police dog lunged at Mr. A, biting his right forearm, drawing blood and destroying his jacket, a recent Christmas present from his mum and dad.
Although he was shocked and in great pain, Mr. A asked the officer for her details as he intended to pursue a complaint about the assault by the police dog. She refused and a male police officer ushered him away.
Mr A walked away and met up with some friends who advised him to return to the WPC to insist that she give him her details. Once again, she refused and once again, he was ushered away by the male police officer who belittled and laughed at him as he did so. At no time was it suggested that Mr A had committed any criminal offence and at no time was Mr A obliged to give his details.
As he walked away, Mr. A saw another man receiving treatment in an ambulance. He had also been bitten by a police dog . Mr. A approached the paramedics, was treated and taken to hospital for dog bite injuries and shock.
Mr. A, a student has never been in trouble with the police before, complained to the police the next day and agreed to have the matter investigated by local resolution, an informal process I do not recommend. Before then, the police had no idea who he was.
Malicious Prosecution by the police
A couple of weeks later he was visited at home by two uniformed South Yorkshire Police officers. Rather than discuss his complaint, they served Mr A with a Fixed Penalty Notice for breach of s.5 of the Public Order Act on the day of the derby match, ie that he had caused ‘harassment, alarm or distress’.
Mr. A contacted me for advice. He knew that the s.5 charge was made-up nonsense, but that if he accepted the fixed penalty and paid the £60 fine it would be dealt with and he would not have a criminal record, something of crucial importance to a young man with the rest of his life ahead of him.
However, he also knew that South Yorkshire Police had issued the Fixed Penalty notice merely because he had the temerity to complain. They would not have known who he was, and so would not have served him with the Fixed Penalty Notice if he hadn’t approached them the following day to complain.
Ultimately, Mr. A decided to fight the allegation. Mr A lodged the appeal and waited. It would appear that South Yorkshire Police then bungled their attempt to prosecute. They are now out of time to do so.
I am now representing him in a compensation claim against South Yorkshire Police.
Although South Yorkshire Police’s Chief Constable David Crompton assured us that things had changed, my client was subjected to an entirely unjustified assault and prosecution. I am not re-assured by the Chief Constable’s words.
It appears to me that the s.5 Public Order Act prosecution was brought to put Mr A in his place. Once again, we would hear the old line of the hooligan football fan being restrained by well-meaning police officers. In short; the same lie South Yorkshire Police peddled in the aftermath of the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy would be repeated following an attack by a police dog at the same football stadium 23 years later.
To put a 19-year-old in this position, where he had to decide between the principle of defending himself from trumped-up charges, or letting the matter lie, is nothing short of disgraceful and points to an institutional failing within South Yorkshire Police which has not been addressed. Unlike Chief Constable Crompton, I have no doubt that this leopard has not changed its spots.
Iain Gould is a solicitor who specialises in actions against the police compensation claims.