Relatives of the 96 people killed at Hillsborough in 1989 have severely criticised a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service not to charge any former West Midlands police officers with criminal offences relating to the force’s original investigation into the disaster.
Margaret Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group whose 18-year-old-son James was killed in the disaster, said she was disgusted. She also criticised the CPS for failing to properly explain its decisions and the evidential threshold required to bring criminal charges.
Two former West Midlands police officers, who have not been named, were referred by the Independent Office for Police Conduct to the CPS for consideration of possible charges of perverting the course of justice, misconduct in a public office, or conspiracy to do so. Bereaved families and survivors of the lethal crush at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, where South Yorkshire police was responsible for safety, have long protested about the quality and conduct of the West Midlands police investigation.
The director of public prosecutions decided in August 1990 to bring no charges in relation to the disaster. Currently six people, including four former South Yorkshire police officers, are facing criminal charges, after a 23-year campaign by bereaved families and survivors resulted in new police and IOPC investigations in 2012.
The allegations against the two former senior West Midlands police officers, confirmed by the CPS, were that they “failed to investigate the cause of the Hillsborough disaster properly, either deliberately to assist South Yorkshire Police (SYP) or otherwise negligently, and/or that a misleading or incomplete file was submitted to the DPP in 1990”.
Explaining the decision not to prosecute, which means that no former West Midlands police officers are to be charged for any offences relating to the original investigation, the CPS said: “The evidential threshold for criminal prosecution is not met in relation to either suspect. Whilst there was found to be some cause for concern in the actions of both suspects, there is insufficient to reach the high threshold required to prove a criminal offence.”
The CPS explained that there was evidence that “some aspects of the investigation were not carried out to a high standard”.
It added: “However, there is a lack of evidence showing any deliberate plan or action by the suspects to hinder it.” The statement also said there was a “difficulty in attributing responsibility for all of the failings to these suspects,” and that: “There is no evidence that, as alleged, one suspect intentionally provided an inappropriate selection of evidence to the DPP.”
At the same time, the IOPC announced that it had decided not to refer three former senior South Yorkshire police officers to the CPS for prosecution, following a further review of allegations that they engaged in a cover-up after the disaster.
The allegations, the IOPC said, were that: “These three senior officers participated in a strategy to minimise South Yorkshire police culpability for the disaster by wrongly blaming Liverpool fans. In particular, it is alleged that officers sought to deliberately mislead the  Lord Justice Taylor inquiry, the [civil] contributions hearing and the original inquest proceedings.”
The IOPC’s strategic lead for the Hillsborough investigation, Rachel Cerfontyne, explained that the CPS had previously decided not to charge these officers.
“Although there was some indication that two of the three former officers may have committed a criminal offence, it was not deemed appropriate to refer their cases because the CPS had already rejected the possibility of bringing criminal charges based on substantial evidence that was reviewed in 2016. No further evidence or legal matters have since been identified that could realistically alter that view,” Cerfontyne said.
Responding to both decisions, Aspinall said that families had always been outraged by the West Midlands investigation, and the way some of their officers conducted it. “We are disgusted and disbelieving that no charges are being brought against any West Midlands officer,” she said. “The CPS have not explained to families what their ‘threshold’ is for charges – or what more evidence they needed. It is really important that justice is seen to be done, and that a strong message is sent to all police officers. I am disgusted by this.”
Becky Shah, whose mother, Inger, was killed at Hillsborough, has always vehemently complained about the West Midlands police investigation, saying that officers asked if her mother had been drinking and sought to portray her negatively. “To find now that nobody from the West Midlands force is to be charged … I have no words for it,” Shah said. “I am livid.”
In a letter of explanation sent to bereaved families, Sue Hemming, the head of the special crime and counter-terrorism division at the CPS, wrote: “I appreciate that my decision will be disappointing to you, but I would like to reassure you that in reaching this conclusion, we have spent a significant amount of time reviewing and considering the evidence that was submitted to us. As you know, the standard of evidence required for any criminal prosecution is high.”