A visitor to Dore or Nether Edge over the last two weeks would be shocked at what’s become of these peaceful residential areas. Entire streets blocked off, an imported army of private security forces in high-viz, 30-some police officers, riot and CCTV vans — a riot shield was even spotted. Further scrutiny, however, would reveal that one day last week the focus of all the attention was three individuals doing nothing but standing next to a wall — two pensioners and a small middle-aged woman. Eventually police gave permission to the security forces to use “reasonable force” on the three of us (I was that middle-aged woman) and that’s when the cries of pain started. But police were on the scene and acted fast. They acted fast, that is, to tell us that we would be summoned to court for a minor violation of section 303 of the Highways Act (the fine is smaller than that for failing to pick up your dog’s poo). This violation was what justified our assault, apparently. After that, they increased their police presence this week in Dore, issuing yet more summonses to dangerous looking grey-haired folk — one of whom they unnecessarily handcuffed then de-handcuffed, apparently in a fit of overzealousness (much as they arrested and then de-arrested the pensioners with me the earlier day).
Police are also knocking on doors and talking homeowners into taking back the permission they have given tree protectors to stand in their gardens. It has been reported that they rang one house, claiming to be from a CCTV unit who had spotted people in the garden, and told the minor who answered the phone that their household insurance could be invalidated if anything went wrong due to the presence of these people. These are not the actions of a police force — police don’t use CCTV to spot actions which might invalidate insurance, and then notify homeowners. These are the actions of people acting as agents for the private corporation that is taking over Sheffield’s streets and destroying its trees.
All this was in service of ensuring that multinational company Amey and its contractor Acorn get to do precisely what they wish to do in Sheffield. What they wish to do is to fell perfectly healthy trees for no good reason, against the wishes of residents. Worse, they do it with absolutely no accountability. The council signed a secret 25-year PFI contract with Amey, and they are now willing to devote a huge proportion of their scarce resouces to enforcing this contract, and to turn our streets into bizarre quasi-militarised zones so that pensioners can be hurt to make sure that the healthy trees are felled.
The police claim that they are acting as objective peace-keepers, equally interested in making sure that laws are followed on all sides. And the individual police offers are courteous and even charming, in general. But assault after assault has been reported to police by protestors and no action taken. This includes video footage of an uppercut punch by an SIA security worker on Meersbrook Park Road several weeks ago — in the presence of police observers. It includes an SIA bouncer gratuitously kicking a bystander, in the presence of witnesses, on Thornsett Road last week. It includes lots of footage clearly showing people, many of them pensioners, crying out in pain as private security assault them. On Meersbrook Park Road some weeks ago, police were on the scene and refused to look in the direction of the assaults. On Thornsett, they had given permission for the use of “reasonable force”. Meanwhile, we have had instance after instance of protestors being arrested and then de-arrested, sometimes in rapid succession and sometimes over a long and stressful period. A protestor was arrested on the spot and held for 11 hours because a barrier man said he thought the protestor had given him two fingers many weeks ago. But when a barrier man gave two fingers to protestors with many witnesses police refused to do anything at all.
Meanwhile, a look at crime reports reveals that watching (or studiously not watching) pensioners get assaulted is really not what police in the area should be doing. At the very moment that dozens of police were on Thornsett Road watching peaceful protests, a house was burgled on nearby Wath Road. But this was not an isolated occurrence. In fact, the area saw a 60% increase in burglaries from December to January, and the Star has just reported on a rash of daytime burglaries in Nether Edge. The focus for police, however, is elsewhere: not on this, nor on those areas with much worse, more violent crime. Instead, they’ve apparently been told to devote their energies and their training to the criminalisation of protest and to facilitating the use of physical force on pensioners.
The police presence has been so disproportionate that yesterday Lord Scriven demanded answers regarding this use of resources, calling for the Chief Constable to be “held to account”. Today we saw a responsefrom Assistant Chief Constable David Hartley. Remarkably, he plans to triple the number of police assigned to protests: “We have seen 90 to 100 protesters and the number officers will replicate that.” He claims to have no choice, while at the same time seemingly conceding that this is a terrible use of resouces.
“We have a myriad of responsibilities — knife crime is on the up, homes are being burgled so the backdrop to that is of course these officers could be better placed elsewhere but the council has a lawful right to carry out this maintenance and we have a duty to be there so we don’t have any other choice.”
South Yorkshire Police seem to be forgetting their own history, including the very recent history of Rustlings Road, when they felt they’d been “thrown under the bus” by the council’s interactions with them over the operation. Stunningly, they are only increasing the extent of their actions to enforce Amey’s contract upon the people of Sheffield, despite real need from citizens for them to be elsewhere.