A rise in hate speech and intolerance in Sheffield has presented a problem for the city’s police officers.
Protests, such as the one by a Christian group at the Pride Sheffield event at Endcliffe Park in July, inevitably lead to upset and anger among those targeted.
Police action on the day came under scrutiny, with some groups complaining officers did nothing to stop the religious group shouting anti-LGBT slogans.
But for Det Chf Insp Sarah Poolman, the force lead on hate crime, freedom of expression comes first – until the law is broken.
“There is a distinction between protest and if you were walking down the street and someone was following you and threatening you,” she said.
“That’s a crime. But this group came to give their views. Yes, it’s controversial, but every protest is controversial.”
As soon as the protest started, the small group was surrounded by Pride attendees, many of whom started chanting pro-LGBT slogans back at them. It was a difficult situation for police, who formed a barrier between the two groups but were unable to take further action.
DCI Poolman said: “I know there were a lot of young people there who were on their journey, and clearly for them it would have been very upsetting. But that doesn’t make it a crime.
“To make it a crime they would have needed to be more threatening. They were quoting scripture, giving their opinions and interpretations of the Bible. That in itself isn’t threatening.
“It’s a difficult line to draw. We have got precedent where people are allowed to express their views even if they are insulting. And actually, those who react to it are deemed to be in the wrong.
“They were asked not to distribute leaflets because that was in contravention of city council rules. They stopped.
“If there were examples of one-to-one behaviour we would have investigated it. On both sides.”
After the event a meeting was held between LGBT groups, officers and South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner Dr Alan Billings. A key point was the need for both sides to better understand each others’ positions.
As a result, South Yorkshire Police will rethink its literature around hate, focusing more widely on ‘incidents’ such as the Pride protest rather than just ‘crimes’.
“It was a really productive meeting and now it’s about moving forward. There needs to be a greater understanding of what the police can and can’t do,” said DCI Poolman.
“As hate lead I want to know about any incident where someone has been abused as a result of who they are, whether it’s their disability, sexuality, race or religion.
“It’s for police to decide whether that’s a crime or not.”
Hate crimes are covered under the Public Order Act. In 2013 the Government changed the offence of using ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’, removing ‘insulting’.
“The Government wanted to make sure people could voice their opinions,” said DCI Poolman. “To have freedom of expression and say what might not be palatable to others.”
The result was that protests such as that at Pride, or the many English Defence League marches that have taken place in Rotherham in recent years, are legally allowed to take place. And while this might cause offence and upset, the intention is to uphold the basic principal of freedom of expression.
DCI Poolman said: “We have benefited from freedom of expression, as have a number of countries, and that’s enabled the country to get to the position that it is in. That, hopefully, is a tolerant, multicultural and accepting place.
“And that’s because of the Human Rights Act helping us break down barriers. You can’t then say other groups can’t have that freedom.”
That’s not to say the change in the law has made the police’s job any easier. There has been a steady rise in hate crime reporting in South Yorkshire over the last five years.
Some of that, police say, is down to increased engagement and understanding of hate crime. But this year in particular has seen a marked increase. Reported hate crime jumped by 20 per cent in March, and remained at that higher level through April, May and June.
DCI Poolman has her own theories. She said: “The referendum campaigns launched on February 20. So in South Yorkshire I believe there was a correlation. Nationally it was around the vote.
“It’s interesting that we have seen a drop in July. We are waiting for August’s figures.
“It wasn’t just the referendum. We have had the US election and Donald Trump. Terrorist attacks on European soil. The shooting in Orlando. All of these things are really undermining community cohesion.
“It’s critical that police take a firm stance on these incidents so we can stop that. Sending that strong message that this is against the law and won’t be accepted.”
The force is constantly developing and updating its hate crime strategy, but it will not be effective unless officers speak to people.
There is plenty of engagement at a local level. Each force area has a hate crime lead, and neighbourhood inspectors are in regular contact with all minority communities. Hate crime scrutiny panels look at emerging trends and issues are raised at advisory panels run by the police and crime commissioner. The force is also building a relationship with Tell Mama, an Islamaphobia support group.
DCI Poolman said: “I think people see the police as the answer.
“We can be the answer if there is a crime committed. We are the answer in terms of facilitating peaceful protest. And that’s what we did at Pride.
“We have to be really careful not to be heavy-handed.”