No evidence for police claim that 'professional' Sheffield tree protesters were trying to injure workers

South Yorkshire Police claimed “professional” protesters were trying to stop tree-felling work in Sheffield by attempting to seriously injure council contractors in an official communications strategy - despite having no evidence for the allegation.

Operation Quito saw dozens of police officers sent out to support tree-felling operations in Sheffield in early 2018. Pic: Scott Merrylees.
Operation Quito saw dozens of police officers sent out to support tree-felling operations in Sheffield in early 2018. Pic: Scott Merrylees.

A Freedom of Information response relating to the force’s controversial operation to send dozens of officers to oversee tree-felling work in Sheffield being carried out on behalf of council highways contractor Amey in early 2018 has revealed new information about the communications plan behind it.

In February, South Yorkshire Police admitted that despite their inclusion in the Operation Quito communications plan as “intelligence”, these claims had never been investigated as there was no evidence to back them up. A separate FoI response sent last year had said the allegations were “raised by the contractors in [an] initial risk assessment meeting”.

A previously redacted part of the same section of the communications plan has now been published and states: “The new protestors, believed to be professional, are aggressive in nature and have been directing this towards the workers.”

Another previously redacted section of communications plan also states: “Protestors are also taking their, often very young, children to protests.”

South Yorkshire Police today said they were unable to define what constituted a “professional” protester and as such, could not say if there was any additional evidence or intelligence about the involvement of professional protesters or whether anyone fitting such a description had ever been arrested.

A spokeswoman said: “The term is not a South Yorkshire Police term, it was received as intelligence and reported as such. On this basis, we cannot provide a definition.”

Details of the claims about alleged attempts to injure workers were included in an independent panel’s report in June 2018 which found the police’s tactical plan for dealing with the tree-felling protests to be “proportionate”.

The panel’s review was ordered by South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings following national criticism of the police response in February and March 2018. It followed clashes between protesters and private security guards in January.

The new FoI response which has unveiled more details of the police communications plan is from the commissioner’s office and includes a series of internal emails about where the panel’s information about the allegations had come from.

One email from a press officer said information passed to the panel about specific incidents “was done so verbally and at gold meetings that are not recorded or formally minuted by the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner.”

Claims that there were “professional” anti-tree felling protesters have been rejected by campaigners.

Paul Brooke, co-chair of the Sheffield Trees Action Groups, said while some campaigners had worn masks during protests under trees inside safety zones covered by the High Court injunction, they were all ordinary local people.

“There was no one present who could be described as being ‘bussed in’. There was a bloke who came from Barnsley on his bike but I can say with absolute certainty all the people on the streets were concerned local residents.”

He said the claims of repeated attempts to injure council contractors were a “complete fabrication” and the allegations had come as a “complete surprise”.

"I used to speak to the arborists a lot and I never once had one of them say something like that had happened. Where it came from is a complete mystery," he said.

"The only incident I can recall connected with an arborist was during a night-time felling where someone was pushed and accidentally stood on an arborist's rope. He inadvertently stood on the rope and the arborist was quite rightly annoyed because their ropes are really key to them. But in terms of what was alleged, absolutely nothing of that nature occurred. It is a fabrication."