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Courtesy of Press Association - July 7

The police match commander at Hillsborough prior to the 1989 disaster was transferred weeks before for "career development reasons" rather than from the fall-out of a "prank" by officers in which a trainee constable was stripped and subjected to a fake robbery, the inquests into the tragedy has heard.

Chief Superintendent Brian Mole was moved to the Barnsley Division of South Yorkshire Police on March 27, 1989 ahead of the fateful FA Cup semi-final on April 15 in which 96 Liverpool fans died and was immediately replaced by Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield who had little experience in the same footballing role.

A former chief inspector told the hearing that he did not believe Mr Mole's transfer was linked to an incident in October 1988 involving a number of officers at Hammerton Road police station.

The court, sitting in Warrington, Cheshire, heard that four officers were forced to resign and seven were disciplined after a "prank fake robbery" was carried out by colleagues of a probationary constable.

The constable had his trousers pulled down, was blindfolded, handcuffed and then led to believe he was being threatened with a gun.

The officer's ordeal was also photographed, the inquests heard.

Patrick Roche, representing some of the bereaved families, asked former chief inspector David Beal whether the now deceased Mr Mole was moved to Barnsley because of unhappiness about how the aftermath of the incident had been handled.

Mr Beal answered: "That's not my knowledge of it. I understood he was transferred for career development reasons."

Mr Roche said: "Certainly, for whatever reasons, it was somewhat surprising that he (Mr Mole) was transferred with immediate effect from March 27 - so during the period between the selection of the game and the match itself."

Mr Beal replied: "It was surprising to me, yes."

Mr Roche added: "Because Chief Supt Brian Mole was a highly experienced officer?"

"Absolutely," said Mr Beal.

Mr Mole was match commander in 1987 and 1988 and could have still acted in that role in 1989 despite his transfer, said Mr Beal.

Mr Beal, who did not give evidence at either the Taylor Inquiry into the disaster or the original 1991 inquests, drew up the operational plans for the 1987, 1988 and 1989 FA Cup semi-finals staged at Hillsborough.

He said there was no facility for either police officers at ground level or match stewards to monitor overcrowding in the pens at the Leppings Lane terrace and that role he expected to be performed by ground commander Superintendent Brian Murray and match commander Mr Duckenfield from the nearby police control box.

Mr Beal had told the jury that prior to 1989 the police had ordered the tunnel leading to the central pens to be closed off to fans when they were full.

But such a strategy to direct fans to the outer wings was not included in the plans for the 1989 tie between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest which Mr Beal accepted should have been "in hindsight".

Previously the jury has heard Mr Duckenfield ordered an exit gate to be opened shortly before kick-off with a mass of supporters still outside the ground at the Leppings Lane turnstiles and the central pens already filling up.

An estimated 2,000 fans came in and a "significant number" headed for the tunnel, it has been said.

Mr Beal agreed with Mr Roche that turnstile figures could show police how many supporters were coming into the ground but not where they were going.

Mr Roche said: "I think we agree that the system which involved monitoring from the control box was not a reliable means of checking whether pens three and four were overcrowded."

Mr Beal replied: "That's right but it was the only means."

The witness also agreed that it was impossible for fans in the central pens to get out once they became full and no-one was stopping fans coming in at the back from the tunnel.

Mr Roche said: "If the tunnel is not closed, then there is no way out for the fans?"

Mr Beal said: "Correct."

The barrister continued: "The whole system relies on the superintendent and the chief superintendent in the control box."

Mr Beal said: "That's right. In reality that is the only way really you can judge the levels in the pens."

The witness said he had been aware of congestion outside the Leppings Lane turnstiles prior to 1989 but that it was "manageable".

He agreed the force in 1989 was "regimented" in organisation with officers expected to obey instructions from superiors and not use their discretion.

The inquests were told that officers were not allowed to let anyone on to the perimeter track from the terraces except to receive medical attention.

But Mr Beal said the way in which the instructions were worded did not accommodate such events as overcrowding or fans showing signs of distress.

Mr Beal agreed with John Beggs QC, representing three retired match commanders including Mr Duckenfield, that whoever was appointed as overall commander of F Division in Sheffield - which encompassed Hillsborough stadium - became match commander for semi-finals and could not well say no to then chief constable Peter Wright.

He also agreed that commanding semi-final matches was "very different" to league matches at the time as it was noisier within and outside the stadium.

The jury has heard that Mr Duckenfield commanded two league games at Hillsborough before the 1989 tragedy - on April 1, 1989 and April 5, 1989 - when Sheffield Wednesday hosted Millwall and Wimbledon.

Mr Beggs asked the witness: "Would you accept that although he would get some familiarity with the ground during those matches he was not going to understand what a semi-final was like from those two?"

Mr Beal replied: "Not at Hillsborough, no."

In terms of monitoring the central pens from the police control box, Mr Beggs said that the now deceased Mr Murray had at least the benefit of having done the same job at the 1988 FA Cup semi-final.

The barrister said: "Not something you can see, plainly, that Mr Duckenfield had the benefit of?"

The witness said: "No he did not."

Giving evidence, Timothy Mitchell, a serving inspector for South Yorkshire Police, said he recalled Mr Duckenfield giving officers a pre-match briefing in the car park at Sheffield United's Bramall Lane before the 1989 disaster on a date he could not recall.

He said: "In broad terms he said something along the lines of 'we don't want any fighting and if there is any fighting to be done it is going to be done by the police not the fans' - which tended to stick in my memory at the time...because I had not really heard any comment made like that in the setting of a formal briefing before."

Jonathan Hough QC, counsel for the inquest, asked Mr Mitchell what he thought the comment meant.

The witness replied: "It felt like it was rather a silly eve-of-battle speech. I think it served to raise the volatility of the police officers on duty. It was certainly unnecessary. You don't need to be told anything like that.

"I have not heard another senior officer make a similar comment but I think it was consistent with the culture of a sort of real emphasis on tackling disorder."

In a witness statement, Mr Mitchell described Mr Duckenfield's alleged comment as "crass".

The hearing continues tomorrow.