One of the things I cannot help but reflect upon as I have been writing this series of articles about Police Misuse of Stop and Search powers, is how most of the victims in these cases have been black.
I have commented at the conclusion of one of my previous blogs on this subject that, given the prevalence of those of my clients who have been subjected to unlawful Stop-Searches by the Police who are from an ethnic minority background, it is hard to avoid a conclusion that having a non-white skin colour, or a non-British accent is, in the heads of certain Police Officers, taken as an indicator of likely criminality. In this regard, my professional experience is borne out by the statistics that show that in 2015–16 black people were 6 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the Police than white people.
This leads me to what I consider to be one of the most flagrant examples of ‘routine’ racism in day-to-day Policing, a case I have recently concluded on behalf of two clients, a brother and sister of African heritage, in which, despite neither of them being the subject of the initial Police Stop and Search they were the only two people arrested at the scene whilst the white subjects of the Stop and Search were not arrested and were allowed to go free.
On the day in question in January 2013 my clients Ellie (then aged 23) and her brother Mark (then aged 21) were at home in the flat where they lived with their mother in Deptford, London.
Both Ellie and Mark were of Nigerian birth, but had resided lawfully in the UK for a number of years. Mark was a student and Ellie worked for the NHS.
Both Ellie and Mark were of impeccable character, and prior to the incident in question neither had ever been in trouble with the Police.
Ellie had earlier been out in the company of her Polish boyfriend Peter, and Peter’s friend Tomas (who is also Polish).
Peter had dropped Ellie back at her flat, so she could get changed, and then he and Tomas had gone to look for a parking space for their car. The intention was then that Peter, Tomas and Ellie would then travel by foot and train to Stratford Market.
However as Ellie left her flat she could see that Peter and Tomas were out of their car and the car was being searched by three men.
The three men searching the car were all white skinned and were wearing plain clothes, but as Ellie got closer she could see that they were wearing badges to identify themselves as Police Officers and they also verbally asserted that they were Police.
The three plain clothes officers finished searching the car and were now body searching Peter and Tomas. The situation was calm and Peter and Tomas were fully cooperating. Ellie walked to Peter’s car and put her handbag in the back of the car.
Ellie then asked the plain clothes officers what was going on and one of the officers replied that they were searching Peter and Tomas for drugs. Ellie replied, “Well they haven’t got any drugs, you’re searching the wrong people”. Ellie did not shout at the officers or try to interfere with the search; she knew that both Peter and Tomas were innocent and presumed the search would soon be over.
A fourth Police Officer, also a white male, now arrived at the scene and started to search Peter again, although Peter had already been searched.
Peter politely queried with this newly arrived officer why the Police hadn’t shown any ID badges and whether they needed a Warrant to search him.
In response, the newly arrived officer told Peter to “Shut the fuck up” and asserted that the Police could do whatever they wanted. The officer then made comments to the effect that drug taking was common in Poland.
Ellie was shocked by what she heard and spoke up saying that the officer should not talk to Peter in that way and that she had been to Poland and it was nothing like what the officer was trying to suggest.
The officer became irate at Ellie’s intervention going as far as to push her in the chest telling her to “Shut the fuck up”.
This officer then opened the boot of the car again (although it had already been searched) and Ellie approached to see what he was doing. The officer then slammed the boot lid shut in an aggressive manner, which caused the boot lid to strike a glancing blow against Ellie’s hand which was resting on the corner of the boot. Fortunately, Ellie was able to snatch her hand away so it was not trapped in the boot.
Peter then protested to the officer that he should be more careful.
Ellie’s left hand was now hurting where it had been struck by the boot lid. The officer had offered no apology for catching Ellie’s hand and when she now spoke to him angrily asking why he had slammed the lid when her hand was there the officer replied “That’s it, you know what, get into the car.”
The officer then started to push Ellie away from Peter’s car and towards a nearby, unmarked, Police car. Ellie protested to the officer “What are you doing?” The officer replied “You’re under arrest” but did not say what she was being arrested for.
The officer then grabbed Ellie’s hand in order to apply a handcuff, and Ellie pulled away from him. The officer took hold of Ellie and attempted to get her hands behind her back so he could handcuff her, hurting Ellie in the process.
The officer kept repeating to Ellie that she was under arrest but not telling her what she was allegedly being arrested for.
Ellie asserted that she would resist the officer until he told her what it was she was being arrested for.
A number of local residents and passers-by had now heard the commotion and were gathering around.
The officer managed to get a handcuff on one of Ellie’s hands and then dragged her towards the Police car, twisting her handcuffed hand as he did this.
The officer then attempted to push Ellie into the back of the Police car. Ellie was resisting being pushed and kept saying to the officer “Tell me what I’ve done”.
Ellie was attempting to hide her hands in her lap so the officer could not take hold of them. She was understandably extremely distressed by what was being done to her. The officer had launched an unprovoked assault upon her and was now appearing to attempt to arrest her for the ‘crime’ of having annoyed him.
The officer now seemed to lose his temper completely and said to Ellie “You black bitch can you put your hands so that I can handcuff you, stop resisting, you’re making my job harder”.
Ellie was now screaming at the officer to let her go and in reply the officer said “You bitch, you black bitch, you’re resisting arrest, that’s it, you gotta go, that is it”.
A second Police Officer then came over and helped the officer who was struggling with Ellie to push her face down onto the pavement, causing her to bang her head.
Ellie was now lying on her front on the pavement and one of the officers used his boot on Ellie’s spine to keep her head down whilst they handcuffed her hands together behind her back.
Whilst Ellie was lying on the ground she was able to see that amongst a crowd of bystanders was a young man who was recording what was happening on his mobile phone. Ellie did not know who this man was. However Ellie then also saw her younger brother Mark amongst the crowd and called out to him to record what was happening to her, and Mark took out his phone to photograph the incident.
Mark had been getting dressed in his bedroom when he heard a commotion in the road outside and recognised the voice of his sister.
Looking out of his bedroom window Mark had seen his sister being assaulted by the Police Officers and had therefore left the flat and had gone outside to see what was happening. Mark was naturally concerned for his sister.
He was extremely shocked when he came outside to see Ellie being held down on the ground, handcuffed by the Police Officers.
In response to Ellie’s request that he photograph what was being done to her, Mark did indeed take out his mobile phone and took one photograph of the scene, showing Ellie pinned to the floor by the Police Officers.
There was of course absolutely nothing illegal in him taking a photograph of this very public scene.
Neither now, or at any point, did Mark attempt to physically intervene in his sister’s arrest in any way.
Having taken the photograph, Mark did not attempt to approach his sister or any of the Police Officers.
However, one of the Police Officers then approached Mark and demanded that he hand over his mobile phone as the officer wanted to see what he had photographed or videoed. Mark refused.
The officer then said to Mark words to the effect that if he deleted the picture, then he would not be arrested.
Mark was in shock and asked the officer why he was saying this to him. He told the officer he would not delete the picture as he wanted evidence of what had been done to his sister.
The Police Officer then said to Mark that he was under arrest on the grounds of either obstructing or perverting the course of justice. He took hold of Mark’s arms and handcuffed him to the front.
Mark was in a state of distress and confusion and could not believe what was happening.
Both Ellie and Mark were now placed in separate Police vehicles (Mark in a Police car, Ellie in a van which had been called to the scene) and were driven away to Lewisham Police Station.
Peter and Tomas meanwhile were released by the officers at the scene and allowed to go about their business. The search upon them and their car had, of course, been completely negative.
In my opinion, even if the language used by the officer who was arresting Ellie had not been overtly so, the racist motivation for the arrest of Ellie and her brother would appear quite explicit in circumstances where neither of them were the target of the Stop-Search and the white men who were the subject of that search had been allowed to go free.
On arrival at the Police Station, Ellie was taken before the Custody Sergeant and was informed that she had been arrested for fighting an officer. This was the first time this had been said to her.
Meanwhile, Mark was brought before the Custody Sergeant and one of the officers accompanying him falsely alleged that Mark had been arrested for attempting to obstruct the Police from carrying out a Stop and Search. It was alleged that he had been told to get back by the Police several times before being arrested, which is simply not true. Mark could not believe what he was hearing.
Ellie and Mark were then locked in the Police cells for a period of over 13 hours before eventually being released. This was an extremely distressing experience for both of them, who had never undergone anything like this before.
Both of my clients were ultimately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, released without any charge whatsoever being made against them.
A review of the evidence prior to release by a Police Inspector in Ellie’s case is recorded in the Custody Record as follows –
There is nothing in these notes that identify this person stopping or preventing the officers carrying out the search.
Likewise, the same Inspector was obviously not impressed or persuaded by the evidence of the arresting officers against Mark as recorded in his Custody Record is the following comment by the Inspector shortly prior to release –
There is sufficient doubt over the arrest of the sister for this matter of obstructing that arrest to be NFA’d as insufficient evidence to obtain a realistic prospect of conviction in that if the sister’s arrest was without grounds then the officers were not acting in the execution of their duty and cannot therefore be obstructed.
This whole story, I’m sure most people would agree, contains quite a shocking series of events. Without meaning in any way to be flippant, rather indeed this is something we should take very seriously, it does appear to me that Ellie was arrested for the ‘offence’ of being black and annoying an officer, whilst Mark was arrested for the ‘offence’ of being black and refusing to hand over his phone (which the officer had no lawful power to demand).
One good thing to take away from this case is that the Senior Inspector who conducted the review had concerns about the evidence of the arresting officers and did the right thing in directing that Ellie and Mark be released without charge.
Nevertheless a considerable amount of harm had already been done. Both brother and sister had been deprived of their liberty for over 13 hours and their trust and confidence in the Police had been deeply shaken.
Ellie in particular suffered both physical and psychological injuries as a result of her arrest and incarceration which took months to resolve.
I pursued a claim against the Metropolitan Police on behalf of both Mark and Ellie seeking damages for assault and false imprisonment. Disappointingly, given the conclusions which had been reached by the Inspector in the Police Station, but perhaps not surprisingly, given the usual conduct of the Metropolitan Police when faced with civil claims, liability for both of my clients’ claims was initially disputed by the Police and we were forced to commence Court proceedings against them.
In response to those proceedings the Police asserted that the arrest of both Ellie and Mark had been justified and asserted that Ellie had interfered with the search of Peter, and that Mark had attempted to physically intervene in his sister’s arrest. These allegations did not cause me any great concern however, because I knew that both Ellie and Mark were telling the truth.
Ultimately, it appears that the Police Officers who were involved in this case were reluctant to go to Court to tell their lies on oath, as prior to trial the Metropolitan Police approached us with offers of settlement, and the claims of both Ellie and Mark were eventually settled for total damages of £15,000.00.
In response to this Ellie wrote me the following very kind letter –
I don’t know how to thank you and your team enough in helping me and Mark through this whole terrible incident that happened a few years ago.
I was totally worried the situation will remain unsolved and I didn’t know how I would feel by going to court and getting a biased Judge.
I was also left with so much anger as to why it happened to me because I am just a very calm person.
I am very happy that this is out of the way and I can focus on my future as this issue has really disturbed me for years.
And even speaking to you every time about it made me very emotional and cry but I’m going past it as time goes on because I have never experienced such.
I am glad with the outcome as I thought what they did was very wrong and I know they have done this to so many people who didn’t know the law and was quiet about it.
Of course it would not be possible without your help so I am saying thank you a million.
As I have said before in this blog, Justice is not just about the pounds and pence of the compensation award, but giving people a real feeling of restitution, that the powerful in society can be held to account when they do wrong and the principles of justice and fairness which it is essential that we can all believe in for society to properly function can be upheld and protected by the mechanisms of the law. This is especially important for any groups in society who are disproportionately targeted by Police abuses, as is clearly the case with illegal stop/searches of people of non-white appearance.