The Government announced this week that the UK’s terrorism threat level has been downgraded from “severe” to “substantial” and as such the terrorism threat is now at its lowest since August 2014. “Substantial” is the third of five ratings at which the threat level operates and indicates a terrorist attack “is likely”.
I am quite sure that the risk of a terrorist attack remains real but whatever the level of perceived threat, it’s incredibly important that previous terrorist attacks and/or the current threat level should not affect the way in which Police Officers approach situations, which should be done in accordance with their training and with approved techniques.
Walking whilst black
I have recently concluded a claim for a young black Londoner (whom I shall identify as “Steven”) where it is blatantly apparent Officers concerned in his arrest and detention lost sight of their powers and responsibilities and carried out what I consider to be an unlawful arrest. The Metropolitan Police evidently agreed because although liability was disputed they have recently settled Steven’s claim such that he is to receive a five figure settlement award.
Back in October 2014, Steven was walking along Ealing Broadway having been for a haircut, when he was stopped by two Police Officers.
One Officer said that Steven had been stopped because he was suspected of following another police officer from Ealing Police Station.
Steven, who had never been in trouble with the Police, was shocked at the allegation and politely said words to the effect that he had not followed anyone. He told the officers confronting him that they were in fact the first police officers he had seen all day.
One Officer nevertheless told Steven to “stand over there” and pointed towards a nearby shop. Steven did as instructed.
Unlawful stop and search
The Officer then conducted a pat-down search and asked Steven for his name and address. Steven found the request intrusive but provided the information as requested.
The Officer then said that Steven “looked suspicious” and that he thought Steven was “linked to something that had happened earlier on”.
Steven told the officers where he had been and what he had been doing over the course of the day.
The Officer then asked Steven if he knew “what had been happening on the news as regards to terrorism”. Steven replied, “No.”
The Officer said, “Anyone seen acting suspiciously outside a police station is treated very seriously as the police are on red alert.” Steven replied, “I was just going home.”
The Officer then repeated the suggestion that a police officer had been followed outside a police station and implied that Steven was the person who had followed this police officer.
It subsequently transpired that a PCSO had earlier that day reported that she had been followed from the Police station by two black males and then several hours later, another Police Officer had left the Police Station and reported that he had been followed by Steven.
Steven again denied the allegation and questioned why he would do such a thing. Steven reiterated that he had simply been on his way home.
More Police Officers, both uniformed and plain-clothed, joined the first 2 Officers on the scene.
Steven was confused and shocked about what was happening to him.
Steven also felt embarrassed, as he was being treated like a criminal, as members of the public in the vicinity were staring at him as he was questioned by the police.
One of the plain-clothed officers told Steven to hand over his phone, so that he could “have a look through it”. Steven did so and provided his password.
After a little while, Steven asked the plain-clothed Officer whether he had found anything on his phone. The plain-clothed Officer replied that Steven had “some nice food” on the phone. Steven knew from this that the Officer had been looking through his photographs.
One of the officers then asked Steven what he did for a living. Steven explained that he was a chef.
Steven then heard one of the officers speak into his radio and attempt to verify Steven’s identity. Eventually the response came back that Steven did not have any previous convictions and that he was not wanted by the police.
Throughout this time, Steven repeatedly asked if he could go.
Steven was eventually informed by one of the Officers that he had called for a Sergeant to come down and speak to Steven. The Officer said that the Sergeant was on his way.
Steven, who had been compliant throughout, felt increasingly worried and victimised.
Steven asked how long the Sergeant would be. The Officer said that the Sergeant would be no longer than around five minutes.
After what felt to Steven like 15 minutes, the Sergeant finally arrived on the scene. The Sergeant spoke with some of the Officers, before approaching Steven.
The Sergeant asked Steven for his name and whether he had his passport on him, where he had been that day, and where he had been going when stopped by the police. Steven answered the Sergeant’s questions and explained that he did not have his passport on him.
The Sergeant then said to Steven, “I don’t believe you and your story.” The Sergeant then asked Steven if he was “selling drugs”.
Steven, as a young Black man, immediately felt that he had been stereotyped, targeted and racially discriminated against. This new accusation clearly had nothing to do with the original allegation that Steven had been following a Police Officer. Steven replied, “No.”
The Sergeant then said words to the effect of,
“Coming from where I’m coming from, if you was in my shoes, how would you look at this?”
Steven replied words to the effect of,
“I was simply walking with an intention to go home and on my way home to get something to eat. I changed my mind and was walking to the bus. What is wrong with that?”
The Sergeant ignored Steven’s response and went to speak to some of the other Officers, who were huddled together in a group.
Terrorism, Drugs or Harassment?
A decision was made to arrest Steven and he was handcuffed to the rear.
One of the Officers told Steven he was “under arrest for suspicion of harassment”.
Steven was shocked, distressed and angry. He could not understand how the position had seemingly changed from an allegation of following a Police Officer, to being questioned about terrorism and drugs, to an arrest for harassment.
The Officers then escorted Steven to a nearby police vehicle and transported to Acton Police Station.
Once at the Police Station, Steven was put before the Custody Sergeant and booked into custody.
Steven was subjected to a pat-down search and had his property removed from him.
Illegal strip search
Steven was then taken to a room away from the custody desk and subjected to a strip search.
Steven understandably felt extremely embarrassed, humiliated and degraded by this experience; like many people who experience a Police strip-search, he felt as though he was deliberately being stripped of his dignity as well as his clothes.
Steven was taken from the room and had his DNA, fingerprints and photograph taken.
Steven was then placed into a small, cold cell.
After a few hours in the cell, a female Officer visited the cell. The officer informed Steven that he was going to have an interview so that he could tell his “side of the story”. She told Steven that he could do this with or without a lawyer but that it might take some time for a lawyer to arrive.
Steven agreed to be interviewed without a lawyer because he wanted to get out of the Police Station as quickly as possible.
Shortly after this, at or around 23:59, Steven was taken from the cell for interview.
During the course of the interview, Steven answered all questions put to him. This included questions about his views on the Police and his views on Syria.
At the conclusion of the interview, Steven was returned to the cell.
Following interview, Steven continued asking the officers what was happening but was told that the people dealing with his case had gone home.
Steven felt trapped and as if he would never get out of the cell.
Steven eventually managed to fall asleep, but periodically woke up due to the noise of the cell-block and thoughts running through his mind.
At some point, Steven pressed the cell buzzer and asked if he could call his family. Steven was worried that his family would be concerned about his whereabouts. He had seemingly vanished from the face of the Earth.
Steven explained to the person who answered the buzzer that the contact number was in his phone. Steven was informed that his phone had not yet been returned from the lab.
Steven was not able to call anyone else, as he did not know any contact numbers without having access to his phone.
Eventually an Officer attended the cell and told Steven that he could leave the Police Station. Steven was taken to the custody desk.
At the custody desk, Steven was informed that he was being released on bail, to surrender at a later date.
Steven’s property, with the exception of his phone, was returned to him.
Steven was released at or around 16:35.
Steven walked from the police station to the nearest bus stop and caught the bus home.
Release and Complaint
On arrival home, Steven discovered from members of his family that the Police had attended the premises whilst he was at the Police Station and had searched his bedroom.
Members of Steven’s family were upset about what had happened. Again, Steven felt like his privacy had been invaded.
A few days later, two Officers attended Steven’s home to return his phone. He was told that the Police knew he was “not a terrorist” and that his bail had been “lifted”.
Steven subsequently filed a complaint. Following investigation, his complaint was dismissed. He appealed to the Independent Police “Watchdog” (in reality, often the Police “Lapdog” I am afraid) the IPCC. The IPCC rejected his appeal. They concluded that the stop was justified given the context (i.e. the then terrorist threat level) and the Officers’ allegations of being followed.
It’s quite evident that the grounds for Steven’s ‘stop and search’ were questionable to say the least. On Steven’s account, on the one hand he was told that he had been stopped because of the offence for which he was later arrested and on the other hand he was informed that he looked suspicious and reference was made to drugs and terrorism. It seems that Steven’s race/ethnicity was a primary factor in the Officer’ decision-making from the outset.
But I believe that the legality of Steven’s arrest for harassment was also highly questionable given that a single act cannot constitute harassment. The offence is only committed if there is a course of conduct. If it was not reasonable to suspect Steven of a course of conduct, it could not have been reasonable to suspect him of the offence of harassment.
Furthermore, in respect of the allegation that Steven was a suspect for having followed a PCSO earlier that day, Steven’s description simply did not match the description of the actual suspects (if indeed the men could have been genuinely suspected of having committed an offence or at least one incident that may have formed the basis of an offence of harassment). It could not have been reasonable to arrest Steven for an offence based on a description of a suspect or suspects that did not correspond to his appearance. The only feature, it seems, that was broadly similar was the fact that the suspects and Steven were not white as indeed are millions of people in this country. Suggestions about a climate of terrorism/fear about terrorism do not negate the need for every arrest to be founded on reasonable grounds of suspicion.
If it was not reasonable to suspect Steven of having followed the PCSO, even if it had been reasonable to suspect that Steven was following another Officer based on his (entirely innocent) actions, the requisite course of conduct would not have been made out for the purposes of the offence by following that Officer alone. It would be necessary to show reasonable grounds to establish a course of conduct, which in my opinion could not be shown, because Steven could not have reasonably been suspected to have been involved in following the PSCO.
In the circumstances, Steven’s arrest for harassment was in my opinion entirely unlawful, as was everything that followed afterwards including his degrading strip-search and the search of his home address. This is reflected in the significant damages and legal costs which are now to be paid by the Metropolitan Police in settlement of Steven’s claim.
I believe that it is highly important to pursue claims on behalf of individuals such as Steven as a natural corrective – sometimes the only remedy available – against Police over-reach of their powers of stop search and arrest particularly where the complaint process has failed the victim, as it so often does.
Terrorists commit ghastly, high-profile crimes but the reality is that the percentage of us that they can directly be harmed by their activities is extremely small. What terrorism is much more effective at doing is creating a disproportionately big climate of fear, whereby, as I am sure is the terrorists intention, they can scare us into harming ourselves and changing the character of our open, liberal, democratic society by swinging towards ‘draconian’ or paranoid policing. Steven’s arrest and detention was one such over-reaction by the Police, in circumstances heavily tinged with racism, which we must guard against as keenly as we guard against terrorist attacks themselves.
Police abuse of power is a problem which whilst at a much lower-level of wrongdoing is a more pervasive risk and one which could do greater long-term damage to the fabric of our society.