Police chief's 'regret' over tree protest arrests

South Yorkshire's chief constable has spoken of his force's 'regret' that Sheffield's tree protests have created a situation with 'decent people who have found themselves coming into contact with the law' as it emerged officers have made 25 arrests since early January.

QUESTIONS: South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings
QUESTIONS: South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings

Chief Constable Stephen Watson was answering questions raised by South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, over the way the force has handled the increasingly bitter protests surrounding the removal of trees from suburban roads in the south of the city during the first months of the year.

Mr Watson gave a robust defence of his officers’ actions and spoke to debunk the accusation that his force has worked in collusion with Sheffield Council or contractor Amey, which was carrying out the work until it was halted this week to allow talks over Easter.

Speaking at the PCC’s Public Accountability Board meeting Mr Watson said: “I absolutely understand and it is a source of regret to us that in these protests we have an element of people who are of good character and decent people who have found themselves coming into contact with the law.

“We have bent over backwards not to arrest people. We do not want to arrest people and we do not want to criminalise people and my plea to people is that if you are being warned you may be arrested, be sensible.”

The meeting heard that 25 people have been arrested since January, though not all of those have been charged.

Some have faced ‘restorative justice’, where the offender meets with the victim of their offence to reach a solution, with others cautioned and some ‘de-arrested’.

That has happened were arrests have been made for a breach of the peace, a relatively minor infringement. Arrest means they have been removed from the scene, preventing a possible escalation of the situation, and officers have taken the decision that further criminal action against them would be fruitless.

Others have been accused of offences including aggravated trespass, assault and criminal damage.

Protests have meant that every day police have had to maintain a squad of 33 officers available for crowd control duties, however, with an experienced senior officer to provide command duties – meaning those staff have been lost to other policing duties in the district.

Not all numbers have been used on each occasion, but when senior officers conducted an “experiment” and held all officers back from policing an area where Amey contractors were operating, work had been brought to a halt by protestors in less than five minutes.

“There is a sense we are somehow working hand in glove with the contractors,” said Mr Watson.

“We are not an agent of Sheffield Council, Amey or protest groups. We are absolutely impartial. We have no view whatsoever in terms of the rights and wrongs.

“These are matters for public and political discourse. We are there to balance off the rights of all parties,” he said.

Residents on the streets where protests have taken place were “not necessarily synonymous with protestors” he said, with some complaining about the disturbances.

But he acknowledged the long running stand-offs had left his force in a difficult situation: “We recognise we are between a rock and a hard place,” he said.

“While this is going on all we can do is act professionally and with integrity.

“This is not winning us any friends and we understand that.

“Until the dynamic changes, we are where we are. We can only hope this phase shakes out a different way of doing it,” he said.

The pause in tree felling is designed to allow Sheffield Council and Amey the chance to discuss the future of the contract, though previously it has been said there is no option to re-write the detail of the way Amey operate, with Sheffield Council insisting through the course of the contract so far that only trees which have needed removal for reasons including disease and decay being felled.

Pressure has been growing on Sheffield Council to find a solution, however, as costs to the police service have continued and Environment secretary Michael Gove has become increasingly critical of the council’s position.