“If it turns out the police were in the wrong with what happened at Hillsborough, I will feel disappointment and shame in the profession.”
Chief Supt James Lee doesn’t mince any words as he sums up his criticism of the lack of leadership he witnessed at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium on April 15, 1989.
Chief Supt Lee was a young policeman who had only been in the force for two years when he attended the fateful match and he wasn’t on duty as a policeman when it happened.
Now 50, Chief Supt Lee was 24 at the time and was working for Lancashire Police for the drugs squad in Morecambe.
Chief Supt Lee has been a Liverpool supporter since he was a youngster and says he had always wanted to either join the police - or be a Liverpool player.
During the time of the Hillsborough tragedy, he was living in Morecambe and went to every Liverpool home and away game.
He recalls: “I used to go to the matches with my friends from Liverpool and there were a group of us who went together and it was like a ritual.
“On that particular day, my friend Ian drove us to the match and there were roadworks so like many people, we were delayed in getting there.
“When we got to the ground, it was chaos and I remember thinking it did not seem well organised.
“We had been to the same game against the same team the year before and it was totally different.
“The year before, there were cordons in place and there were people checking your tickets and making people form lines.
“However, this year, there was none of that - just a mass congregation.
“But a lot of games were like that at the time and if you went to Wembley, Tottenham and Arsenal, it was the same.
“In my mind, the only grounds that were well policed at the time were Liverpool and Manchester.”
James and his friends were in the side stand - the West Stand - and he remembers noticing straight away that the middle pens were overcrowded.
Around 40 minutes before kick-off, he has a vivid recollection of a beach ball being bounced between the crowds and this sticks in his mind.
The match kicked off, but just six minutes later, there was a crowd surge and shortly after that, fans scrambled on to the pitch and the game was stopped.
Chief Supt Lee says he and his friends saw a lad walk past them with a broken arm and that was their first realisation that there had been injuries.
They then saw people being stretchered to the side of the pitch and he climbed out of his stand and went on to the pitch to help the injured.
Chief Supt Lee recalls: “I went into auto pilot as I was trained in first aid so I wanted to try to help the injured.
“The person I started working on was already dead and then I saw a policeman, so I grabbed him and identified who I was and asked what I could do to help. I was escorted into a gymnasium at the side of the stand.
“When I entered, I saw a large number of dead people and a huge number of injured people.
“Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw on that day. It was horrendous.”
Chief Supt James Lee, now South Division Commander for Lancashire Police, says at that time, he had come across death in the line of his police work but nothing on such a large scale.
And he admits that even after a further 27 years with the police since Hillsborough, he has not witnessed tragedy on such a scale or such horrific sights.
In the gymnasium, he battled to try and help the victims but his attempts at resuscitation proved futile. However, he did manage to treat some of the injured with first aid.
He recalls there was pure chaos and says: “There was no co-ordination and there appeared to be a lack of leadership.
On the day, Chief Supt Lee remembers feeling despair for the families who lost loved ones in the disaster.
In the days that followed the tragedy, his emotions spiralled into anger.
He explains: “I felt like I was part of an angry city.
“My real anger in the days that followed was that the Liverpool fans were getting the blame for what happened.
“I am critical of the FA, the police on the day and the media frenzy that erupted blaming the fans.
“Being a policeman myself, if I find that things were tampered with in regard to what happened at Hillsborough and that things were changed, I will feel very disappointed that such a thing could happen.
“I have never seen anything like that in my police career.
“If it turns out the police were in the wrong, I will feel disappointment and shame in the profession.”
Shortly after Hillsborough, James Lee became seriously ill after his appendix burst and he got peritonitis and it was put down to the stress of Hillsborough.
After he recovered, he says it changed his perspective on life and made him “grab the bull by the horns.”
He explains: “I used to be a worrier and worry about things like money.
“However, Hillsborough made me more selfish in my quest to be happy at any cost because you don’t know what is around the corner.
“It also made me want to get promoted in the police and scale the ranks.
“I wanted to prove I could provide what I believe to be good leadership.”
Chief Supt Lee is gold commander for Preston and says the training is professional and there have been a lot of positive changes in football since Hillsborough.
He says: “A lot of positives have come out of Hillsborough but at a cost of people’s lives and that should not have to happen.
“I feel that things have moved on in football a lot - but at a very high price.”
Chief Supt Lee has carried on going to Liverpool games ever since but admits the club has never fully recovered from the tragedy.
He says he feels pride at the way the football club have handled it and battled over the years and says they deserve a lot of credit.
But his real praise is reserved for the Hillsborough families who he believes have campaigned relentlessly with dignity.
Chief Supt Lee says: “On the day of Hillsborough, the fans rallied round and were desperate to help people and were giving first aid.
“I also have memories of people desperately trying to find their friends and family.
“I feel a real sense of pride for the families who have battled against the establishment and fought and fought for years to have a proper inquest and investigation.
“Some of those people deserve a lot of recognition for what they have done.
“I am still haunted by what I saw that day and I still fill up whenever I hear You’ll Never Walk Alone.
“Being at Hillsborough changes your life and perspective.
“But what I saw and experienced is nothing compared to the people who lost their loved ones.
“My biggest criticism of what I saw on the day is the lack of leadership and planning on the part of the police.
“I believe no police officer was trained to cope with something like that on that day.
“But I did feel there was a real lack of leadership and co-ordination.
“I would like to see the Hillsborough families feel like justice has been done whatever that means to them so they can move on with their lives.
“What it boils down to is that no one expects to go to a football match and die.”