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Duckenfield evidence 'not the best'

Police chief David Duckenfield today agreed he had been "driven to accept responsibility" for his role in the Hillsborough tragedy because of evidence at the present inquests, which was "the writing on the wall".

Last week, for the first time since the fateful 1989 FA Cup semi-final, he admitted he was responsible for numerous failures and had lied that fans forced open an exit gate which led to crushing in the central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace.

The former South Yorkshire Police chief superintendent, who was match commander on the day, previously told the hearing into the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters that the September 2012 report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel forced him to face up to his failings and tell the "whole truth".

But three weeks before the inquests started in Warrington last year he was maintaining his denial of responsibility, the jury heard.

In a prepared statement to officers from Operation Resolve - the continuing criminal investigation into the disaster - he said: "After the tragedy I co-operated to the best of my ability at all stages with all inquiries and investigations."

Mr Duckenfield went on to outline the stress he was under when giving his initial account shortly after the tragedy and then at the 1989 Taylor Inquiry and the original 1991 inquests.

He added: "I consider it very unlikely that I can improve upon my previous recollections or previous accounts."

He told the Taylor Inquiry he had not made any wrong decisions and neither did officers under his command, the court was told.

Questioning him on behalf of 22 bereaved families, Pete Weatherby QC said: "You have told this jury that your 'road to Damascus' moment came some time after the Hillsborough Independent Panel report came out, and that is why you confronted your denials of the past and that you came to accept responsibility for the serious failings you had made."

Mr Duckenfield said: "I do not disagree with that, sir."

Mr Weatherby went on: "So why on March 5, three weeks before these inquests commenced, are you telling Operation Resolve that, apart from relatively minor amendments, what you said earlier was the best that you could do?"

Mr Duckenfield: "I think, sir, that I saw the interview with Operation Resolve as a totally different situation to being able to, shall we say, set out the situation completely."

Mr Weatherby said: "The truth is that you chose to put this prepared statement before them which was misleading."

Mr Duckenfield replied: "In my view, sir, it was not misleading at all."

The 70-year-old retired officer explained that on reflection his evidence to the Taylor Inquiry was "not the best".

He said: "In simple terms I was not proud of the evidence I gave that day."

Mr Weatherby continued: "So why, on March 5, were you in effect saying that you could not improve on it?"

Mr Duckenfield said: "I find that difficult to answer, sir."

Accused of lying in his prepared statement, Mr Duckenfield said: "All I will say to you is this - that I'm now in a position to put my case forward honestly and openly and, as time has gone by, my views have changed but not with any dishonesty at all.

"Sir, the Hillsborough Independent Panel report was published and knowing the possible consequences of that I had to address issues I had never addressed before because I didn't want to face them. As time has gone by you read more things, then the more knowledge you gain, inevitably you change your views."

Mr Weatherby put it to him that in his Operation Resolve interview he had still been trying to "stick to denying any responsibility".

Mr Duckenfield replied: "I have said I was in denial."

The barrister said: "The truth is that you have followed these inquests, you have seen the evidence that has emerged over the months, you have seen that the writing is on the wall and you are now driven to accept responsibility, that is the truth of it?"

Mr Duckenfield said: "Sir, I agree. I have now learned of my failings and I accept them."

Earlier, Mr Weatherby asked Mr Duckenfield what he meant when he said last week he was "dreadfully sorry" to the families of the Hillsborough victims.

Mr Duckenfield replied: "Sir, it is for the heartache that the families suffered, not only as a result of the tragedy but for my less than candid comments to Mr (Graham) Kelly (former Football Association chief executive)."

The barrister said: "Is your apology an acceptance of responsibility for the events of 15 April 1989 and the deaths of 96 people?"

The retired police chief said: "Sir, my view is that many people were a party to the events of that day and I am apologising for my part."

Mr Duckenfield agreed he had accepted that he was not the person for the job of match commander and it was "one of the biggest regrets" of his life that he opened the exit gate at the Leppings Lane end without considering where the supporters would go.

But he added: "I qualify my case. What I am saying is that it was a major decision. I was relieving the stress on the gates, I was saving lives and I thought they (the fans) would go into the concourse."

He also accepted a reasonably competent match commander would have realised that the supporters would go through the tunnel leading to the central pens of the terrace but said he was inexperienced and had a lack of knowledge of the ground.

Mr Duckenfield last week told the inquests that he thought fans were partly to blame for the tragedy.

He told Mr Weatherby: "To qualify it, supporters and others played a part in this disaster."

Mr Duckenfield also said two police units behind the tunnel played a part.

Mr Weatherby put it to him: "In essence, what you are saying is as match commander you had accepted that your serious failings on that day make you responsible but then you are trying to offload your responsibility on all sorts of others."

Mr Duckenfield replied: "No, the buck stops with me. I was looking to those people to provide assistance."

The barrister accused him of "minimising your responsibility".

"You are making expressions of sorrow and regret," said Mr Weatherby, "you are offloading on to others, that is the truth, is it not?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "No sir."

The inquests were shown a photograph of the Leppings Lane terrace taken at 2.59pm which showed supporters climbing up into the West Stand, climbing over radial fences and escaping over the perimeter fence.

Mr Duckenfield agreed they were not looking at a pitch invasion but he agreed that it was "quite clear something was going on".

He also agreed that it would have been "very straightforward" to ask an officer alongside him in the control box to zoom a camera into the crowd.

Mr Weatherby asked: "Did you do that?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "I can't recall, sir."

The barrister told the witness that a police sergeant who was in the control box and the then head of the South Yorkshire Ambulance Service had both told the jury that, looking at the photograph, they thought it was a major incident at 2.59pm.

Mr Duckenfield said: "Sir, people are entitled to their opinion."

The jury was told the police chief did not realise there was a major incident until about 3.07pm when a fellow senior colleague returned from the pitch to the control box and the match had just been abandoned.

Mr Weatherby said: "By that time you had lost eight vital minutes of calling on other emergency response, hadn't you?"

"I disagree sir," said the witness.

The court has heard there was no record of Mr Duckenfield eventually declaring a major incident although he maintained today he was "sure" he did so.

He explained: "I am sure I said it but unfortunately someone did not pick it up. I am not blaming anybody, I am not passing the buck. What I am saying is in a crisis not everything is catered for."

At 3.05pm Mr Duckenfield was recorded as ordering dog handlers to the ground and at 3.08pm in response to a request for a fleet of ambulances an ambulance controllers responds: "We can't just send all the ambulances we have got."

Mr Weatherby suggested that response meant no major incident had been declared at that point.

Mr Duckenfield said: "Well sir I am at a loss ... well I haven't got an answer for that."

Then at 3.14pm a police sergeant in the control box is recorded as saying: "Can we contact the fire service? We want some hydraulic cutting equipment to the ground."

The jury was told that no such equipment was available at the time and that fences had to be teared down by bare hands.

Mr Weatherby put it to Mr Duckenfield: "It was a hopeless response to an emergency, was it not?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "Yes, sir."

The barrister pointed out to the retired officer that there was no recorded attempt from the control box to contact senior ambulance officers about the emergency response until 3.31pm.

Mr Duckenfield said: "All I can say is I thought matters were in hand. It would appear that come half-past three I have suddenly realised that we have not had a very close liaison at management level with the ambulance service."

He added: "I would have thought the available staff from the ambulance service and the police on site by the pens was co-ordinated but I cannot add any more than that."

Mr Weatherby asked Mr Duckenfield what he had done in terms of the emergency response up to 3.30pm apart from seeing FA chief executive Mr Kelly, the match referee and visiting the Sheffield Wednesday boardroom.

Mr Duckenfield replied he was making the "necessary plans" to ensure there was not a pitch invasion and that any tensions between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest fans did not spill over. He was also wary of the crowd "escaping" or "leaving" and was trying to protect local residents and businesses.

Mr Weatherby remarked it was interesting that his answers were a list of crowd control and other public order matters, rather than relating to a rescue operation and the barrister suggested various measaures he could have taken.

Mr Duckenfield sarcastically replied: "Sir I am grateful to you because you have just reminded me of some of the things I had forgotten."

The witness was later shown footage of a policewoman letting fans into pen one at Leppings Lane from the perimeter track after they had earlier been in pen three.

A camera from the police control box followed a male officer who had been told to go down and ask why she had opened a pen gate.

Mr Duckenfield accepted the assertion from Terry Munyard, representing three of the bereaved families, that the policewoman had been in the process of saving lives.

Mr Munyard asked: "Why did we see the cameras focus on the solution and not on the problem?"

Mr Duckenfield said: "I don't know, sir."

Mr Munyard went on: "You had the facility to see directly into those pens and yet you nor anyone else in the control room appears to have had the gumption to focus and zoom into where the problem clearly was at that time, do you agree?"

"Yes, sir," the witness replied.

Mr Munyard said: "Another serious failing on your part and that of your colleagues, do you agree?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "Yes, sir."

The court heard that Mr Duckenfield retired two years after the 1989 disaster and left the police force altogether.

Mr Munyard said: "You retired at a time when the police complaints commission indicated that they intended to bring disciplinary proceedings against you and by retiring you avoided those proceedings, didn't you?

Mr Duckenfield said: "I did, sir."

The barrister went on: "You retired at what age, 46, 47, on full pension?"

The witness said: "Something like that, sir."

On Friday, Mr Duckenfield told the inquests he had seen "a distressing video" of a mother's experience of losing a loved one at Hillsborough.

He said: "For the first time I have seen what it means to a mother to lose a loved one, to lose a loved one not only in these tragic circumstances but to have to say their goodbyes so unexpectedly, in a gymnasium, on a dirty floor, cuddling that person tearfully and you can't share with that person your grief, your sorrow and your sadness.

"It's the most moving thing I have ever seen."

Today, Mr Munyard asked him: "Did it occur to you that over 26 years later those avoidable deaths have destroyed the happiness and wellbeing of an entire generation of Hillsborough families, the children, the young brothers and sisters of the deceased, as well as their parents?

"Did it occur to you to express your grief and your concern in something less than the quarter of a century that it has taken for the search for the truth in these inquests?

"Did it occur to you what harm that was doing to those families while you kept silent for a quarter of a century?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "Sir, I kept silent ... as I said I could not face the issues."

Mr Duckenfield will continue to give evidence tomorrow.

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