In a response to an open letter from Lord Scriven, the former Liberal Democrat leader of Sheffield City Council who raised concerns last week following more than 30 officers being sent to one tree-felling operation, Mr Watson said the marked increase in police numbers was in direct response to a change in the situation.
He said: “South Yorkshire Police remain impartial with regards to the ongoing debate in relation to the trees maintenance program and in respect of the protests against the programme. .
“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.”
For the past two weeks, South Yorkshire Police has been providing a higher level of police presence at felling sites following a pause in tree-felling work after “disorder and violence” on Meersbrook Park Road involving campaigners and security staff working for Sheffield Council’s contractor Amey, which resulted in a number of injuries.
The ongoing removal of thousands of the city’s 36,000 street trees, and their replacement with saplings, is part of a 25-year £2.2bn PFI highways improvement contract between Sheffield Council and Amey that has been running since 2012.
The council and Amey insist that only dead, dying, diseased and damaging trees are being removed. But campaigners say that many of the trees being removed are healthy and do not need to go – claiming the option is being taken for cost reasons.
Around 6,000 trees were due to be removed by the end of last year and replaced with saplings, but hundreds remain outstanding.
Mr Watson’s response to Lord Scriven added that many protesters have never previously been in trouble with the police. “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.”
Allegations made against both sides
Allegations of criminal behaviour by both campaigners and staff working on tree-felling sites have been made to South Yorkshire Police, the chief constable has said.
Mr Watson said: “South Yorkshire Police 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.”