POLICE chiefs in South Yorkshire are on high alert - urging communities to ‘stand together peacefully’ and look for signs of trouble which could spark riots across the county.
Officers are on stand-by to provide extra numbers should violence, looting or arson attacks break out here, following days of rioting in London which have sparked ugly copycat scenes around Britain.
High visibility police patrols were carried out in Sheffield throughout yesterday, with officers on horseback concentrating on the city centre while bobbies on foot patrol and in cars drove around the suburbs. The force helicopter was also out for much of the day, scouring the ground from above.
Trouble has already spread to Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol - and in Sheffield yesterday emergency meetings were held involving police, council bosses and other organisations involved in planning for critical incidents.
Ordinary residents are also being asked to play their part, and report suspicious activity or concerns about incidents or gatherings they fear could spark trouble. And parents are being urged to talk to youths about the dangers of getting involved in riots - with police chiefs warning those involved face hefty jail terms.
Business and community leaders met with police yesterday to discuss how South Yorkshire would react if violence breaks out here.
But South Yorkshire Police said Sheffield has a good record for social responsibility and hopes are high the city will remain calm.
Temporary Chief Superintendent Martin Scothern, Sheffield’s Deputy District Commander with responsibility for putting contingency plans together, said: “We are holding meetings and doing a lot of work with communities, businesses and partners, and we have extra officers available should we need them.
“We are not mobilising any officers to other parts of the country yet, but should we get such a request we will have to balance that against the need to keep officers in South Yorkshire - South Yorkshire has to come first. We are watching the situation as it develops very carefully, and we are asking communities to work with us.
“Parents also have a role to play. Rioting is a serious offence, and many of those involved in the Bradford riots 10 years ago, for example, received prison sentences of between six and 12 years. This new generation of youths involved in disorder being experienced elsewhere may not be aware of that.”
He said the police force is using its neighbourhood policing networks to monitor the situation in South Yorkshire and to link up with partners and community leaders.
“Sheffield is a very safe city, it’s a tolerant city and it’s a multi-cultural city,” he said.
“It does not have a history of this kind of thing - we are better than that - but we are still watching everything very closely and asking people to talk to us if they have concerns.”
Lee Adams, Sheffield Council’s deputy chief executive, said the city has existing contingency plans in place but said a special series of meetings has also been held.
“We have been liaising closely with the police and are keeping in regular contact,” she added. “We have normal arrangements which come in to play if an emergency arises - these plans are always in place. We have been shocked by what is happening elsewhere.”
She said youth workers have been asked to speak about the rioting to youngsters as part of their day-to-day work, and to highlight the risks and dangers of getting involved in anything similar in Sheffield. But she stressed there are no signs of tensions in any of the city’s communities.
“There is no sign of anything in Sheffield and we are grateful for that, but we are geared up for all eventualities, which includes extra security on all our buildings,” she added.
Sheffield MP and former Home Secretary David Blunkett said: “Thirty years ago, and again back in 2001, Sheffield avoided the terrible destruction of riots by drawing on its sense of identity and community, and the feeling of belonging which makes Sheffield what has been described as ‘the biggest village in England’.
“Pray God that people feel they should protect rather than destroy their community and their city at this moment in time. Anarchy always damages the cause of progress and that is true as much today as it was 30 years ago.”