After an escalating gang war resulted in an innocent 12-year-old being shot in broad daylight in Sheffield, police and politicians are under pressure to end to the violence. Chris Burn reports.
The sound of gunfire has become distressingly common around the streets of Arbourthorne in south-east Sheffield over the past three months.
Now a growing gang war that had been causing great local misery has become a matter of national attention after the shocking shooting of a 12-year-old boy in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon.
The boy was injured in the leg after he and a group of friends were fired at in a drive-by shooting on January 12, with police saying he was not the intended target and the incident was connected to “an ongoing dispute being organised criminal gangs operating in this part of Sheffield”.
The father of the boy said in a statement after the attack: “Things are getting out of hand, people need to stop living in fear and we need to get these armed thugs off the streets. When our children are affected by violence, that is the final straw.”
Four arrests have been made so far in connection with the boy’s shooting.
Stephen Dunford, 25, of Fellbrigg Road, has been charged with attempted murder and possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life. Two further men, aged 30, were released on bail after being arrested last week while a 42-year-old woman has been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to murder and possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life.
Police patrols have been hugely increased in the area - but there is a feeling from many residents that it is “too little, too late”.
Arbourthorne has long been one of the deprived areas of Sheffield with recent research suggesting as many as 35 per cent of children in the ward are growing up in poverty. But locals say things have become noticeably worse since November and they are afraid to let children play outside and even fear bullets coming through their windows.
At a public meeting on Wednesday night attended by dozens of people, South Yorkshire Police’s District Commander for Sheffield Chief Superintendent Stuart Barton admitted that hearing local residents speak recently on BBC Radio Sheffield about their fears had a considerable impact on him.
“To be truthful, I felt personally responsible and a bit of professional embarrassment,” he said. “It is our responsibility to try and keep you all safe.
“Hearing about people pushing sofas in front of their doors really struck a chord because that isn’t good enough. If that’s the feeling on Arbourthorne we need to do more about it.
“I understand people will say ‘we are frightened’, ‘we don’t want to talk’, etc. I need your help, we need your help if we are going to crack this type of thing.
“This is two rival groups, I have been clear in the press about what it is about. People in this room may know more but haven’t yet disclosed it. We can protect people but we need to open up. I don’t need to see all the pieces of the jigsaw to see the picture but there are snippets of information out there about what’s happened over the last two months that we need to know about.
“Over the next few weeks and months I will be investing more officers into the neighbourhood policing team, that is a guarantee. Then we build up from there. I know there are probably quite a few people who will say ‘you are not doing enough, you need to do more’. We did an operation today and I heard the comments today on the radio of people saying ‘too little, too late’. I heard those comments loud and clear. We are trying with the numbers of people we have got and the intelligence we have got. I’m 100 per cent passionate about trying to make Arbourthorne better.
“We have officers all round the force working as one about what has happened in the last few weeks and months.
“There was a trigger back in November that led to some of these incidents. We still have people we need to speak too, we are trying to make it as safe as possible for young people to walk the street.”
Barton said he could not go into further specifics about the previous incidents.
Last month, police arrested five men following an incident where shots were fired on a street in Arbourthorne and a press release by the force at the time said investigations at the time were taking place into whether it was connected to three incidents in November - one involving a woman being shot in the Heeley Green area of the city on November 15 and another two on November 19 involving a man being shot in the leg in Arbourthorne following more shots reportedly being fired nearby a short time later.
The public meeting at a local community was also attended by council officials and senior Labour politicians from the city including Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh and police and crime commissioner Alan Billings.
One of the organisers of the meeting was Jennifer Jones, co-chair of Sheffield Momentum, the left-wing campaign group which backs Labour. She said the meeting was not politically motivated but had instead been arranged by her with a group of other concerned mothers to try and get action to be taken.
“There has been an escalation of violence in our community over the last year but in particular in the last three months,” said Jones.
“We started talking amongst ourselves as local parents about getting in touch with the local councillor to arrange a meeting and then this young man was shot. We knew there needed to be some interaction because nobody else was doing it.
“The difference has been in the type of police callouts. Unfortunately it has been a usual thing in the past for domestic violence and anti-social behaviour. But there has now been a transition from that type of crime to something much more serious. There are people being harmed in the street, threatened, cars being set on fire, stabbings and shooting incidents.
“Right now, we can go left or right - one way is going to take us to a very dark and frightening place, the other is going to bring us together and we start to rebuild. It is going to be a very long road either way. Things are getting so bad that we are at a point of no return. We have to say enough is enough. We don’t care who these people are - we just want this type of behaviour and people carrying weapons and drug-running away from our community.”
The meeting ended with an agreement to establish a community action group which will meet regularly to discuss how the police are progressing in tackling the problem. But it is clear there is much work to be done. One woman told the meeting her teenage son was attacked by six youths outside a local school but received no help.
She said she had lived in the area for more than 30 years and it had become much different to her childhood with people frightened in their own homes.
“We didn’t even lock the back door. Now the door is always locked. It is not normal, you might as well be in prison.”
MP points finger at police cuts
Local MP Louise Haigh told the meeting Government funding cuts have affected the police’s ability to deal with violent crime.
Haigh, who is shadow policing and crime minister, said: “The police, because of the horrendous cuts over the last ten years, have not been able to respond as well as they would have liked or anyone would have liked to rising violent crime in particular. But the police aren’t the only part of the solution. We need to think about what we need more of as a community to make us feel safe.”
Crime commissioner Alan Billings said South Yorkshire Police had 600 fewer officers last year compared to 2010. He said even with the now-planned recruitment of hundreds of new officers “all we are doing is putting back what was taken away.”