No proof for ‘lurid’ allegations against Sheffield tree campaigners made in panel’s police review

Unproven ‘lurid’ allegations that anti tree-felling campaigners in Sheffield had cut workers’ safety ropes and studded nails and glass into trees in attempts to cause serious injury were included in a police communications plan and prominently highlighted in a public report exonerating the controversial police response to protests - despite there being no evidence for the claims made by contractors.

Operation Quito saw dozens of police sent to support council felling operations in Sheffield last year and was subject to a review by an independent panel. Pic: Scott Merrylees.
Operation Quito saw dozens of police sent to support council felling operations in Sheffield last year and was subject to a review by an independent panel. Pic: Scott Merrylees.

The allegations were made public in June 2018 in a report by an ‘advisory panel’ chaired by former solicitor Andrew Lockley into events surrounding protests against the felling of street trees as part of a Sheffield Council highways maintenance project being carried out by contractor Amey.

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The review had been ordered by local crime commissioner Alan Billings in response to national criticism of South Yorkshire Police sending dozens of officers on a daily basis to support council tree-felling work in February and March that year in what was known as Operation Quito.

The panel’s review found the police’s tactical plan to be “proportionate” and the report originally claimed part of the context for the launch of the operation on February 26 had been an incident earlier in the month.

It said: “On 21 February 2018, SCC [Sheffield City Council] announced that work had to be abandoned at Nether Edge Sheffield, S7. Its statement said that protestors appeared to be using dangerous tactics such as pulling and cutting safety ropes, studding trees with nails and glass and using oil which could cause chainsaws to slip.”

The report inaccurately attributed these specific allegations to the council when it had made no such comment.

In addition, The Yorkshire Post can now reveal the claims were never investigated by police after being raised with them by contractors in an “initial risk assessment meeting” for the operation as there was no evidence to back them up and no action was ever taken.

However, the claims were included in South Yorkshire Police’s ‘communications plan’ as “intelligence” and mentioned in briefings for officers and other agencies that were attended by members of the panel as part of their review.

Emails released under Freedom of Information laws also reveal how South Yorkshire Police Assistant Chief Constable David Hartley had wanted the allegations to be removed from the panel’s report entirely once concerns about their inclusion came to light - but the request was rejected by panel chair Andrew Lockley over fears doing so would damage the panel’s credibility.

An email from a press officer in the crime commissioner’s office to Mr Lockley on October 12 read: “I have spoken with ACC Hartley about the query and the conclusion that we came to was that the sentence about the tactics should be removed from the report.”

It was suggested that revised wording would highlight a later council press release from February 23 claiming protesters “appeared to be using dangerous tactics” but take out the specific allegations entirely.

But Mr Lockley responded within an hour to the email to reject the idea and say it should instead be made clear that the allegations had originated from the police rather than the council.

“It won’t surprise you to know that I can’t accept this,” he said. “It appears from what has now been drafted that the panel invented the lurid examples of the dangerous tactics, rather than simply made a mistake as to the source.

“That will undermine the credibility of the panel. I would prefer to give the explanation on which we agreed earlier in the week.”

It was subsequently agreed that the report would be amended to say that the council statement of February 23 referring to “dangerous tactics” had been expanded upon in the force’s communication plan which the panel had looked at as part of the review.

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