South Yorkshire's top cops hits back at Lord Scriven over policing of tree felling protesters

Protesters in Dore.
Protesters in Dore.
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South Yorkshire's top cop has defended the way police have dealt with tree felling protesters in Sheffield following criticism from a former council leader.

Former Sheffield Council leader Lord Scriven wrote a letter to the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police to raise his concerns over the manner of policing during the ongoing tree felling programme in the city.

Lord Scriven.

Lord Scriven.

READ MORE: State of Sheffield report: 'Lessons to be learned over controversial tree felling programme'
He demanded answers from Stephen Watson on several key questions and told of his 'distress' after seeing videos of recent policing during protests against tree felling, which has seen a number of campaigners arrested.

Chief con Watson has now written an open letter to Lord Scriven in which he criticised the Liberal Democrat politician for going public with his concerns and defended his officers for how they have policed protests.

He said: "The fact that you chose to publicise your letter so widely without affording me the courtesy of the opportunity to reply is a source of regret. This is particularly so in that your letter contains a number of statements which are both factually inaccurate and prejudicial in nature."

He added: "The policing of protest comes down to an exercise of balancing competing rights and upholding the law.

Chief constable Stephen Watson.

Chief constable Stephen Watson.

"That a number of protesters have sought to unlawfully obstruct individual officers in the execution of their duty is beyond dispute as is the fact that such obstruction has on occasion been accompanied by physical acts and foul abuse.

"Such behaviour is rightfully proscribed in law and will be dealt with purposefully."

READ MORE: Two arrests including 74-year-old man at Sheffield tree-felling site

Chief con Watson accepted that the atmosphere surrounding the protests has "deteriorated in recent weeks" and there has been an "increase in instances of criminal behaviour."

He added that police "cannot and will not simply ignore criminal behaviour when it becomes manifest during otherwise lawful protest activity."

The officer also tackled concern about police use of recording equipment and protective clothing worn at protest sites.

He said following "disorder and assaults" in January, mobile camcorders have been used along with a marked CCTV van in order to produce an "accurate record" of events.

In addition, no personal information collected is passed between police, the council or tree felling contractors Amey.

Officers have been criticised for wearing 'riot' helmets when attending protests, but the chief constable said this head wear simply ensures the "relevant, suitable head protection" is worn when removing protesters from obstructing tree felling work.

READ MORE: Man arrested on suspicion of assault at site of tree-felling works in Sheffield

The fight for Sheffield’s trees has its roots in a £2 billion private finance initiative deal signed by the Labour-run council in 2012.

The contractor Amey is tasked with maintaining the city’s 36,000 roadside trees as part of the Streets Ahead road maintenance agreement.

Campaigners claim healthy trees are being unnecessarily destroyed but the council says the work is required to remove diseased, damaged or dangerous trees.

A number of protesters have been arrested in recent months. The most recent saw a 74-year-old man arrested on suspicion of witness intimidation in Abbeydale Park Rise, Dore on Friday.

Chief constable Stephen Watson's letter in full

Thank you for your letter dated the 6th of March. The fact that you chose to publicise your letter so widely without affording me the courtesy of the opportunity to reply is a source of regret. This is particularly so in that your letter contains a number of statements which are both factually inaccurate and prejudicial in nature.

What is clear however is that you do raise legitimate enquiry to understand the position of South Yorkshire Police (SYP) in the policing of current tree felling activity in Sheffield. I welcome the opportunity to comprehensively set out my responses to the questions which you pose. In keeping with what is obviously your preferred mode of communication, I too will be placing this letter into the public domain forthwith.

The police service have an obligation to ensure that we respond to issues of protest in a fair and even-handed way. The policing of protest comes down to an exercise of balancing competing rights and upholding the law. Our approach in these matters is underpinned by considerations of necessity, proportionality and legality. We recognise and embrace our accountability, not least before the law, in exercising our duties in the professional manner that the public have every right to expect.

In this case, we are satisfied that Sheffield City Council (SCC) has a clear legal basis for the performance of their maintenance duties. As you are aware, these matters have been subject to detailed legal argument in the High Court and a protective injunction has been issued in favour of SCC. In Sheffield City Council v Fairhall, Dillner & others [2017] EWHC 2121 (QB). Mr. Justice Males held that the protesters’ presence within a tree felling safety zone constituted a trespass and, ultimately, an offence contrary to s.303 of the Highways Act 1980. In consequence, both the SCC and their contractors are specifically afforded rights which cannot be unlawfully impinged.

It is also the case that all people have the right to peaceful and lawful protest, residents have the right to the peaceful enjoyment of their property and the wider public have the right to go about their business unmolested. The police have a positive duty to support the maintenance of these rights and to intervene when these same rights are unlawfully impinged upon. This is particularly so in circumstances where the interference with the lawful rights of another is characterised by crime and / or disorder.

Given that the interests and rights of individuals and organisations can sometimes be at odds with one another, the policing of protest is very often complex and contentious. I will set out below therefore further detail as to our approach to this particular protest.

Firstly, let me clearly state that SYP is entirely impartial in the execution of our duties in this regard. SYP has no role in the exercise of council decision-making as to why, how or when any maintenance is exercised. Whilst we will routinely liaise with all parties, including the protesters themselves, SYP does not, nor ever would, act as the agent of any organisation, lobby or group of interested parties.

SYP remain impartial with regards to the ongoing debate in relation to the trees maintenance program and in respect of the protests against the program. These are matters for public and political discourse and it is not the role of the police to take a view on these issues. As you acknowledged in your recent interview on BBC Radio Sheffield, the police do however have a legitimate and necessary role in ensuring that we are in a position to practically support the sometimes competing rights of different parties and to uphold the law. We will flex the numbers of staff that we deploy in response to an assessment of the situation on the ground on any given day so that we remain capable of discharging our duties effectively. In practice, the atmosphere surrounding the protests has deteriorated in recent weeks and, regrettably, we have seen an increase in instances of criminal behaviour. It is in response to this dynamic that SYP has been caused to markedly increase the numbers of our officers deployed.

The duty of the police in these circumstances is a positive one, we cannot and will not simply ignore criminal behaviour when it becomes manifest during otherwise lawful protest activity. In these cases we have taken a balanced, proportionate and reasonable approach but arrests for criminal matters have been made necessary by the actions of an irresponsible minority. Prior to making any arrest, my officers will seek, to the fullest extent possible, to engage with individuals respectfully and calmly so as to afford them every opportunity to avoid the prospect of their being arrested. Officers only arrest people where it is necessary.

SYP will ensure that we give our full and impartial attention to each and every allegation and specific complaint that is received. To date, such allegations have involved complaints against both the contractors and the protesters. In discharging our duties impartially, SYP will take action against any party where evidence exists to suggest that unlawful conduct has occurred. Our policing operations are actively supervised by senior officers on the ground and our approaches are subject to continuous internal review by our professional standards department and legal advisers. Externally, our approach is subject to the scrutiny of the Police and Crime Commissioner, the external Ethics Panel and ultimately by the courts.

I expect my officers to maintain the highest standards of professionalism. Officers understand that they are all accountable for the effective performance of their duties. Any complaints against SYP officers will be thoroughly investigated by my professional standards department and we will take the appropriate action in circumstances where complaints are upheld. Thus far however, I consider that my officers have sought to exercise their duties professionally, politely and impartially. That a number of protesters have sought to unlawfully obstruct individual officers in the execution of their duty is beyond dispute as is the fact that such obstruction has on occasion been accompanied by physical acts and foul abuse. Such behaviour is rightfully proscribed in law and will be dealt with purposefully.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge that these protests stem from high emotion and has seen persons of previously good character coming into conflict with the law. This is regrettable and my officers will continue to undertake all reasonable steps to avoid the situation where inflamed passions might result in the criminalisation of otherwise decent and law abiding people. Our most fervent desire is to facilitate lawful protest whilst seeking to persuade protestors to remain within the law.

Ultimately however, the police cannot and will not permit individuals, however passionately they may feel about an issue, to act with impunity. As a representative of our Parliament, I am sure that you will support the principles of the rule of law and respect for the rights of all persons in our country.

I set out within the accompanying appendix, direct answers to the individual questions which you posed within your letter. I have lifted your questions verbatim and have endeavoured to provide comprehensive answers and clarifications as requested.

Yours sincerely

Stephen Watson

Chief Constable

Appendix

I set out below my response and clarifications to the questions which you posed in your letter.

1) The use if [sic] CCTV and other evidence gathering technology to film people [sic] what PIA’s have been carried out for each Tree Felling incident that South Yorkshire Police attend? If so what have the PIA’s indicated.

After the disorder and assaults experienced on the 22nd January 2018, subsequent operations have employed the use of two overt evidence gatherers. These have been deployed with mobile camcorders to film the ongoing protest activity in response to the tree felling operations. In addition, a marked police CCTV van has also been deployed.

The purpose of deploying evidence gatherers provides several benefits. There is a record of the scene prior to, during and after public order events. The filming will record the giving of the five step appeal process when dealing with protestors and any other warning messages. This will also record evidence of the interactions between protestors, police and security staff and provides an accurate record as to the attempts to deal with the protestors appropriately.

The recordings made by evidence gatherers will also provide evidence of the level of force being used by the Servoca Staff (SIA Staff) to ensure this is reasonable as per Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967. The evidence gatherers can also collate evidence of any criminal offences that may occur and assist in the investigation of criminal offences. In the event that arrests become necessary, these too will be recorded.

The use of the mobile CCTV provides the live feed into the Silver Command Control enabling the Silver Commander to continuously monitor the situation, having the ability to assess conditions and thresholds and thus direct the policing operation as appropriate. In addition to the obvious benefits of deploying these resources the presence of clearly marked police evidence gatherers and CCTV can help to refute any inaccurate allegations made and serve to reduce tension at public order events with people modifying their behaviour and actions in the knowledge they are being recorded.

A Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) is not a legislative requirement. It was not considered appropriate for a PIA to be completed for the tree felling operations as the deployment of overt evidence gatherers and mobile CCTV is a long established practice commonly used in public order events, requiring a police presence, and is in accord with the Code of Practice in respect of PIA’s issued by the ICO.

2) Can you indicate how South Yorkshire Police have complied with the ICO data on the use of Surveillance Cameras and personal information? I wish you to address each relevant section and not just a general reply.

Deciding when surveillance camera systems should be used.

As stated above utilising CCTV and evidence gatherers is a long established practice endorsed by the College of Policing. Overt filming is a method used by the police to maintain public order, prevent crime and assist in the investigation of offences. The decision to deploy evidence gatherers and mobile CCTV in the tree felling operation was taken in view of the perceived increased risk to both sides of the protest and to ensure accountability of all parties. It is a proportionate and necessary response to the demands of the police and to achieve the objectives of the police. They are used for the prevention and detection of crime and disorder.

Governance – Effective Administration.

South Yorkshire Police is responsible for the deployment of evidence gatherers and mobile CCTV and are clearly marked as Police resources. The utilisation of these resources is carried out in accordance with its legislative requirements and the College of Policing Authorised Professional Practice Guidance.

Governance – Storage and viewing of surveillance system information

South Yorkshire Police act in accordance with the relevant legislative requirements and guidance issued by the National Police Chief’s Council and College of Policing in relation to the storage and retention of recordings. Footage is securely retained for a period of 31 days as per the national guidance and reviewed during that period, if there is any footage required for evidential value then we continue to comply with our further legislative requirements in this regard. Any relevant footage of criminal offences or for the investigation of criminal offences is properly exhibited. If the footage is not required for evidential purposes, it will be deleted in accordance with the guidance. Mobile CCTV evidence is securely retained for a period of 30 days and the system automatically deletes footage thereafter in a systematic process unless, as above, there is footage of evidential value which will be retained.

Governance – Disclosure

Any disclosure of footage will be controlled and only in circumstances prescribed in law.

Governance – Subject Access Requests

South Yorkshire Police is committed to complying with Subject Access Requests as per the Data Protection Act 1998.

Governance – Freedom of Information

South Yorkshire Police is committed to complying with the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

3) The number of face to face meeting [sic] and teleconference between SYP and / or Amey and / or Sheffield City Council where discussions or dialogue took place regarding the removal of protestors by force from safety zones/safety zones by SIA personal [sic].

To perform our duty in keeping everyone safe whilst balancing their respective rights, SYP must regularly liaise with all the key stakeholders, these being SCC, Amey, protest groups, local communities, elected members and other interested parties. Such meetings are frequent and multi-tiered to support the effective exercise of our duty. Since the escalation seen on Meersbrook Park Road on Monday 22 January 2018, there have been five formal face-to-face meetings and no teleconferences. In addition, during periods of activity, key SCC and SYP personnel have been co-located within SYP premises. This is to allow for effective communication and coordination. Joint deployment briefings occur so as to ensure that all parties are clear as to their respective responsibilities. This process enables the safe and effective deployment of all of those deployed, which includes SCC sub-contractors. Nothing within these practical arrangements undermine one of the key tenets of the Gold Command Protocol which explicitly asserts the operational independence and impartiality of SYP.

4) The number of face to face meeting [sic] and teleconference [sic] between SYP and protest groups such as STAG where discussions or dialogue took place regarding the removal of protestors by force from zones/ safety zones by SIA personal [sic].

SYP’s Protest Liaison Team has been in dialogue with STAG since 2015, providing a communications link between STAG and SYP and acting as a point of contact for the protesters. Ahead of the announcement that tree work was due to begin again, and SYP’s announcement of a higher police presence, three officers from SYP’s Protest Liaison Team invited STAG representatives and anyone else they felt would benefit from this to a face to face meeting on Thursday 22 February. The group of 13 who attended included 4 persons who introduced themselves as affiliates of STAG. The five-step appeal used by AMEY prior to use of force under section 3 of the Criminal Law Act was explained in detail together with the many aspects of SYP’s role in this activity.

A copy of the presentation was provided to those who attended and the group recorded the entire meeting, with our consent. A precis of this meeting was circulated on STAG’s Facebook page. Protest Liaison officers are deployed to each day’s activity and hundreds of face-to-face interactions have taken place with protestors and protest groups at the scene.

5) Have any agreement [sic] been reached with SYP and / or Amey and / or Sheffield City Council on the role of Police inside the Safety Zones?

Yes. The agreement is that Amey and their SIA company will remove protesters and prevent them from entering the safety zone. The role of the police inside the safety zone is to gather evidence regarding the appropriate use of force by SIA staff and also deal with any criminal offences including section 303 of the Highways Act 1980. A police liaison officer will also be deployed in the safety zone to appeal to protesters inside the zone, as part of the five-step appeal delivered by SIA staff. This provides an opportunity to negotiate with the protester to leave the zone without the use of force or danger of arrest.

6) What [sic] the operational sign-off procedure for the deployment of Police numbers and resources to each Tree Felling Incident and which officer had the final say on both numbers of police officers and the operational use of filming and use of riot shields, etc?

The police use the National Decision Making model to assess the information available and make decisions regarding the threats and risks posed in any given situation. The assessment is conducted by an accredited public order silver commander and a strategy is set by a public order accredited gold commander. The silver commander will develop a tactical plan including resource requirements based on the threat and risk assessment for any given situation. This is presented to the gold commander for final sign off.

The operational use of filming is a recognised tactic for dealing with public order situations and is contained within national guidance (College of Policing Approved Practice for Public Order) https://www.app.college.police.uk/app-content/public-order/

The silver commander will set a policing style, which is appropriate for the incident or in this case protest. The policing style set is friendly and approachable and officers are dressed in normal police uniform with high-visibility vests. At no point in this operation have officers been deployed in level one code of dress, more colloquially referred to as ‘riot gear’.

The only time a shield has been deployed during this operation is when two protesters chained themselves together and a trained police officer was preparing to remove them. The shield in question was intended to be used in protecting the protesters from any sparks during removal given the use of cutting equipment. In this case the protesters released themselves so the shield was not used. Protective headgear has also been used during the removal of protesters, which is part of a health and safety requirement for police officers.

7) Why when a 66-year-old lady yesterday [sic] was knocked to the ground in a safety zone by SIA staff why [sic] did SYP officers not make any attempt to deal with this?

The lady in question had unlawfully entered into the safety zone with another protester. She was being escorted out of the safety zone by SIA staff, when she lifted her feet off the ground. At the same time, a second protester was violently struggling with security staff and the lady was knocked to the floor.

Our officers at the site made an assessment of the situation and called for an ambulance. She was cared for and looked after at the scene by officers and SIA staff, who provided her with a blanket. Officers, following a conversation with the lady, decided the quickest option was for police to provide her with transport and she was carried by a number of officers from the site, to a police van, and on to further care.

8) What operational assessments have been made to deploy over the last 3 months the number of police officers to each tree felling event that SYP have been present [sic]? Why based on public safety has the number been agreed upon?

This is covered under point 6 – these numbers are decided using the National Decision Making model and are necessary and proportionate to the threat and risk anticipated.

9) Who has asked SYP to attend each Tree Felling incident since September 2017? Could I please have the name of the Organisation and why SYP have agreed to attend each one based on evidence?

Since 2017, SYP has had a response plan in place to attend tree work sites, where protest has impeded the lawful activity to maintain the highways. SYP has a statutory duty to allow the enjoyment of rights without interference from crime and disorder.

10) Who is reviewing from SYP the ongoing deployment of police resources to tree felling incidents?

This is reviewed on a daily basis using the National Decision Making model by the silver commander. The Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner has also commissioned an independent review of the police operation, through its Advisory Panel on Policing Protests. The whole operation – strategy, risk assessment, tactical plan and resourcing has also been subject to an independent force peer review and has been approved and endorsed.

11) What information is been [sic] passed between SYP and/or Amey and Sheffield City Council with regards to the data collected as part of Evidence Gathering and how does this comply with the HRA and data protection legislation?

No personal information collected as part of this operation is passed between SYP and Sheffield City Council and/or Amey. Any request for personal data from third parties is dealt with in accordance with our statutory responsibilities. Notwithstanding the Data Protection Act exemption for the disclosure of personal data where it is necessary for the purpose of legal proceedings that could potentially be relied upon by South Yorkshire Police, there will be no disclosure to third parties without a sealed Court Order requiring the relevant information to be disclosed.

12) I am somewhat distressed to see some of the videos placed on social media and the way that South Yorkshire Police might be perceived to have lost any sense of prospective [sic] in the way they are dealing with this issue.

South Yorkshire Police have not placed any video of the protests on social media. The videos which appear on social media have come from private individuals, often from the STAG protest group themselves and represent edited highlights of what has occurred at each of the events. They do not accurately represent what occurred either prior to, or after the filming of such clips. As detailed earlier, our CCTV and evidence gathering facility will ensure that evidence can be gathered and the actual interpretation of the facts of the incident can be garnered by the courts from the resulting footage. Whilst we will review social media for evidence the edited video provided by any party will not be our single evidential reference point. Such footage must always be approached with a degree of caution.

13) Supplementary question: As you will see from the attached photo the police on Thursday woe riot helmets [sic]. Can you please let me know the risk that was in place and by how many protesters were deemed to be a threat to the safety of your officers to instigate the wearing of riot helmets. How this approach is consistent with SYP rules and guidlelines [sic] on the use of such riot gear.

Decisions around the code of dress are made based upon the risk assessment around the activity to take place. On this occasion, the picture you attach refers to the removal of a protestor from underneath a heavy wagon, which had been winched off the ground with hydraulic equipment posing a significant risk for anyone beneath it. While the protestor remained under the vehicle, he was offered the use of a hard hat to protect against any harm he may come to whilst there.

The officers were involved in removing the protester and to protect themselves, with regard to the health and safety of all involved, the decision was taken to use the ‘NATO’ helmets. The use of such does not infer a riot, but ensures the relevant, suitable head protection of the officers tasked with removing the protester from beneath the wagon, who was committing an offence under the Highways Act, as detailed previously in this letter.