The Drug Gangs Terrorising England's Steel City

A local councillor in Sheffield says residents “often don’t bat an eyelid” at the latest stabbing or shooting, since they've become so common.
The ringleader of a Sheffield drug gang, jailed in 2013. Photo: South Yorkshire Police. Background: RayArt Graphics / Alamy Stock Photo

Have you ever had gun smoke go in your face / Swear I can’t forget that taste,” rapped imprisoned drug gang boss Stephen Dunford after accidentally shooting a 12-year-old boy last year. “I was really trying to take him away / Then a youth got a stray."

The child was hit in the leg, and one of his friends narrowly escaped death when a stray bullet punctured the hood of his jacket rather than his neck and head. The broad daylight incident, outside a Sheffield sandwich shop, was one of at least 37 shootings in England’s fourth most populous city last year.


National attention is usually focused on London’s gang violence, but with a population of almost 9 million people, VICE analysis shows that the capital’s official shooting rate is half that of the Steel City’s, which has just 600,000 inhabitants. Of course, official statistics don’t tell the full story: some claim that there are more shootings in Sheffield than authorities are aware of.

“Shootings are going off like no one’s business, and they’re not getting reported,” claims Anthony Olaseinde, director of Sheffield youth organisation Always an Alternative. “There’s no relationship between the communities and the police; they feel like they can’t come and talk to them. Nobody sees them as being there to help us.”

Serious violence has become so common – and so recklessly perpetrated – that, in certain areas, some children are being kept away from windows by their parents to avoid potential stray bullets. That might sound more like a scene out of Narcos than suburban Yorkshire, but drugs are as big a business here as anywhere, and competition is fierce.

“There’s only a certain amount of drug users, and everyone wants to be rich,” says Olaseinde. 

In response to the shootings and surging stabbing rates, South Yorkshire police, which covers Sheffield, has established both a new armed crime team and a violence reduction unit to address the causes of crime. However, with many shots fired in 2021 – including the killing of a solicitor in April – there are fears within the police that law enforcement measures alone may not stop the bloodshed. 


South Yorkshire detective inspector Andy Shields recently admitted that efforts to eliminate drug gangs are ultimately futile, after police said the majority of the shootings – many of which were attempted murder – were driven by drug supply tensions. 

“If we identify, disrupt and dismantle an [organised crime group], we have to be careful not to leave a vacuum,” Shields said. “We would love to be able to eradicate gangs completely, but while there is demand for drugs, there will be supply, because there is too much money to be made.” 

Former undercover detective sergeant Neil Woods, author of Drug Wars: the Terrifying Inside Story of Britain’s Drug Trade, says that increased gang violence is often a “direct result” of police disrupting drug markets.

“Drugs policing is a postcode lottery, and Sheffield is one of the ‘get tough, kick the doors in’ places, so there’s more disruption,” he says. “When you create a gap in the market, people fight over those gaps – and the police are creating gaps in that market. 


“Police need to be honest with the public about police activity. The evidence of police success should be the absence of crime, not the evidence of police activity. There are parts of the UK where police leaders are following the evidence on drugs, and they’re seeing success. Sheffield is an example of the old school causing the same old harm.” 

At a meeting of law enforcement figures in South Yorkshire on the 6th of September, it was noted that the number of reported shootings in Sheffield during the seven months from January to July 2021 had halved on the same period last year. 

However, also noted were a number of recent killings in Sheffield. On the 13th of May, 22-year-old Armend Xhika was fatally stabbed in a street fight in which one other man was seriously injured. On the 29th of July, father-of-two Anthony Sumner, 42, was stabbed to death in the same area in which another man, Danny Irons, 32, was also murdered in April.

Another man recently suffered life changing injuries when he was attacked with a machete for dealing drugs outside of his gang’s territory, with residents speaking of how the atmosphere nearby had become “ugly” after drug dealers became more active.

“It’s like an episode of Top Boy on my doorstep,” says a resident who lives in Nether Edge, an area where many of the shootings have taken place, and says she even saw a dead body one morning. “We found a gun when we were litter picking. It’s the drugs that are causing the need for guns to be on the streets.”


The local business owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to safety fears, says she believes all drugs should be legalised to allow for there to be be greater control over supply. “It would be better than the situation nearby me, where somebody addicted to crack is blatantly selling spice, rocks and heroin to people with serious mental health issues all day,” she says. “It’s worth too much money, and the tougher you get on it, the more money it's worth.”

Labour councillor Ben Miskell says that if similar levels of gun crime were being perpetrated in affluent parts of Sheffield, there would be far greater condemnation. “Our police officers are run ragged dealing with drugs, but it’s a game of cat and mouse, and you’ve got to question whether it’s time for a radical rethink on national drugs policy," he says. 

“However hard our cops work, it has little impact on the supply and availability of the stuff on the street. I’d like to see us take an approach that minimises harm and keeps our kids safe and away from organised crime.”

Miskell feels that politicians don’t have “the guts” to sanction moves at Westminster to move towards drug policies that prioritise health and security. “Our communities can’t wait any longer,” he says. “Residents tell me that they often hear firearms incidents that go unreported to the police. It feels like the wild west sometimes.”

In the area he represents, Park and Arbourthorne, people “often don’t bat an eyelid” at the latest gunshot or stabbing, he claims, since they have become so common: “We’ve got residents who have moved their sofa away from the living room window, to protect themselves and their families from a stray bullet.”

Meanwhile, the Sheffield gang war over drug territory, reputation and revenge continues. At the end of 2020, Stephen Dunford told a prison officer that there was a £75,000 bounty on his head, and earlier this year prosecutors accused him of encouraging his cousin to carry out a drive-by shooting.

“I didn’t have my man bag, my ting was on my hip,” his rap concludes. “Anytime I see man, I empty my clip.”