A letter to retired South Yorkshire police officers praising them for their work at Hillsborough was ill-timed to say the least.
The letter which was posted and hastily removed from the website of the South Yorkshire branch of the National Association of Retired Police Officers the day after the momentous conclusions of the Hillsborough inquests, said their generation of police had faced “immense challenges”.
“You will be feeling sore, angry and disheartened, but you did a good job – we all did,” the message from the branch secretary, Rick Naylor, said.
We know that there were examples of police heroism on that fateful day but the record also catalogues the catastrophic failings of the police at that time.
Admittedly the letter does acknowledge that mistakes were made but it said Hillsborough and the miners’ dispute in the 1980s had been a tough time for police officers, who faced “bile and hatred” and reminded retired officers that “Along the way we caught the Yorkshire Ripper!”
The words are insensitive and the timing is poor. Even though the message was not supposed to end up on the association’s website it seems to reinforce the view that the Yorkshire force should be blame-free.
It is vital to consider when communicating to a closed group that when pen goes to paper the intended recipient may not be the only recipient. There is always a risk that any words intended for the few will end up being read by the masses.
Whatever the communication, timing and context must always be considered.
I don't think anyone can blame the association for wanting to reach out their members after arguably the lowest point in the force's history but, to do so immediately after the inquest verdicts and, when the tide of public opinion is clearly not on your side, was foolhardy.
Peter Neyroud, a former head of the now defunct National Police Improvement Agency and ex-Thames Valley police chief constable, said the retired officers did not seem to have “understood the seriousness of this”. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are undoubtedly officers who have done fantastic things in South Yorkshire over the last 20, 30 years but that was neither the moment to make that comment, nor indeed the way to phrase it.” The message on the website has since been take down, replaced by a joint press statement by Naylor and Mick Brookfield, chair of the association’s welfare group, saying they respected the verdict of the inquest and that approximately 200 retired officers had given evidence to the inquests.