I am pleased today to provide an update on a case which I first blogged about in December 2020, regarding Police abuse of ‘Coronavirus powers’ during the early days of the Lockdown. In that blog, as the case was ongoing, I identified my client only by the pseudonym of “Dwight”. In this blog I will refer to him by his real name of Desmond Acquah.
Desmond is a Black man and a British Army veteran who gave almost 10 years of service to this country, including a tour of duty in Afghanistan, service which ultimately saw him being discharged from the army on medical grounds.
At the beginning of the Coronavirus Lockdown in March 2020, Desmond was continuing to serve the British public at risk of his health as a key worker on the railway network, at a time of surging Covid infections.
At around 2 am on 26 April 2020, Desmond was just arriving home in Portsmouth after a 12-hour shift at work, and wanted nothing more than to check on the welfare of his pregnant partner, and then get his head down and sleep.
However, as he drew close to his home, Desmond noticed a marked Police van begin to follow his BMW car.
Desmond pulled up in his normal parking spot near his flat, and the van pulled up behind him.
Two Officers of Hampshire Constabulary, including PC Thisby, then alighted from the van and approached Desmond’s car.
They demanded Desmond’s name and he asked them, “Why, what’s going on?”
PC Thisby replied, “Well because you’re out and about at 2 o’clock in the morning, there are restrictions in place on movement at the moment because of Coronavirus and so I am just asking for your details”.
Desmond explained that he was a key worker and had just come from work.
PC Thisby then asserted that he needed Desmond’s details to check that the Claimant was a key worker and that if he refused Desmond could be arrested for contravening the Coronavirus rules. This was nonsensical as there was no ‘database’ of key workers that the Police had access to, and Desmond was simply not under any obligation to provide his name.
Desmond considered the Officer’s request unreasonable and intimidatory. He explained that he had just come from work on the railways, he was tired and wanted to go to bed. He removed from his car a small ruck sack, his work clothes, boots, and a coffee canister.
PC Thisby then threatened to arrest Desmond for failing to provide his details under the “Health Protection Coronavirus Restrictions Regulations 2020”.
Desmond felt harassed and decided to call his manager for assistance. At this, PC Thisby grabbed Desmond’s jacket/right arm and said, “Put your phone down. You’re under arrest”.
Desmond protested “For what? You shouldn’t be touching me” to which PC Thisby replied, “For failing to provide your details”.
Both Officers now forcibly restrained Desmond and pushed him up against a wall. The second Officer applied handcuffs to the Claimant’s right wrist.
Desmond was incredulous and immediately said “Take the handcuff off, I will give you my name”. The second Officer said “Just give us your name first” to which Desmond advised his name and again requested the Officers to remove the handcuffs. The Officers agreed and the handcuff was now removed. Desmond pulled away and accused the Officers of harassment.
However, PC Thisby persisted in asking for Desmond’s “details” and demanded his address.
Desmond was now highly agitated by reason of the Officers’ actions and the conversation continued as follows:
Desmond: “You have got no fucking reason. I am going to take your fucking number, you have got no fucking reason to arrest me. I just fucking finished work”.
PC Thisby: “Do you want to get arrested?”
Desmond: “Arrested for what? I’ve been up since fucking 7, I have done a fucking 12 hour shift”.
PC Thisby: “Desmond, I have warning you now if you carry on like that you will be nicked for a Public Order Offence”.
Desmond: “Well that’s what you wanted ain’t it?”
PC Thisby: “Say again”
Desmond: “I just driving from work, I am going to fucking….”
PC Thisby: “Calm down”.
Desmond: “Calm down, what you say fucking calm down for? What cos you’re a Police Officer you think you’re what, the law. You’re a fucking citizen yourself. I just fucking finished 12-hour shift, I am tired, I want to go and get my head down”.
PC Thisby: “Desmond give me the rest of your details now or you are definitely going to be arrested”.
Desmond: “What, I have given you my name, what else?”
PC Thisby: “Okay, let’s have your name, your address and your contact details because you are going to be reported for breaking the Coronavirus rules as I explained to you”.
Desmond: “No, what, what am I speaking Swahili to you?”
PC Thisby: “Don’t spit at me when you are shouting”.
Desmond: “I am not spitting at you”.
PC Thisby: “You are shouting and you are spitting. Give me your details so I can report you.”
Desmond: “I have just fucking finished work, what part of that don’t you understand? I have just fucking finished working”.
At this, Desmond went to pick up his belongings and walk away, but the conversation continued:
PC Thisby: “Desmond don’t walk away from me”.
Desmond: “Breaking what Coronavirus? What am I supposed to do, fly to my bedroom after work?”
PC Thisby: “Right you’re nicked. Caution still applies”.
Desmond: “What? What applies?”
PC Thisby: “You’re under arrest”.
Desmond: “For what?”
PC Thisby: “For not giving me your details under the Coronavirus rules”.
Desmond: “I said I have given you my details, I am going to record this because this is fucking harassment”.
Desmond now attempted to record events on his phone, but the officer sought to take the phone from him. Desmond backed away into the street and PC Thisby called for backup.
PC Thisby now escalated matters further by drawing his PAVA spray cannister, pointing it directly at Desmond and ordering him to get down on the ground.
Desmond was incredulous and protested “Are you kidding me?”
However, under duress, Desmond now turned to face the wall with his arms raised. PC Thisby again ordered Desmond to get down onto the ground and to put his arms behind his back, as if he was dealing with a suspected bank robber, rather than a tired key worker who was just trying to get home.
Desmond accordingly dropped to his knees and put his hands behind his back and was then handcuffed to the rear by the second Officer.
Desmond again asserted that this was harassment, but now confirmed his home address.
Unfortunately, Desmond’s ordeal still wasn’t over. He got to his feet, whereupon PC Thisby took hold of Desmond’s right arm and announced that he was to be searched because the Officer wanted to establish Desmond’s identification. Desmond protested and accused the Officer of being racist.
PC Thisby now pushed Desmond towards the wall with both hands and held him against the wall. Desmond again confirmed his name and address and said, “You started fucking roughing me up. For what, doing a 12-hour shift. I just finished work”. The second Officer now began to search Desmond.
Two more Officers, a male and a female now arrived, and began to participate in Desmond’s continued unlawful detention.
Desmond made reference to his work belongings nearby and continued to remonstrate as to the Police action against him, to which the fourth Officer shouted at Desmond, “At the moment there is a virus going around killing thousands of people so shut up and stop behaving like this”. Desmond replied, “No, don’t tell me to shut up….” But the fourth Officer continued harangued him, saying, “You’re behaving like a fucking idiot at the moment, shut up”.
Both PC Thisby and the fourth Officer continued to manhandle Desmond and the conversation continued as follows:
PC Thisby: “Desmond we gave you every single opportunity”.
Desmond: “You gave me what opportunity?”.
PC Thisby: “To try and get your details”.
Desmond: “What opportunity, what opportunity? I have just done a fucking 12-hour shift”.
PC Thisby: “No one is disputing that Desmond”.
Desmond: “Why are you pushing me against the wall”.
PC Thisby now lost his temper and shouted at Desmond, “Because I don’t want you spitting in my face when you’re shouting, you stupid man”.
PC Thisby now directed that Desmond be put in the back of a Police van and he was forcibly marched, bent over, to the van, with Officers continuing to manhandle him.
Desmond felt as if he was going to pass out and asked the Officers to allow him to stand up straight and to then sit down. The Officers advised that he would be allowed to stand up but not sit.
A fifth officer now attended and spoke to Desmond. Desmond again advised his name, that he worked on the railways and that his arrest was unlawful. He was highly agitated and distressed.
PC Thisby directed the second Officer to continue his search of Desmond. Whilst Desmond was being searched, PC Thisby radioed the control room and advised that he made an arrest for a Public Order offence and resist arrest. Desmond overheard and immediately challenged this, saying “What arrest, a Public Order offence, for what, for what?”. He received no explanation.
PC Thisby now stated to Desmond that if he ‘calmed down’ he would be released. Desmond remained highly distressed as a result of what the officers had done to him, convinced that he had been adversely treated because of this race and replied, “You don’t understand, you haven’t even said sorry, do you know what I mean. Why do I deserve this treatment?”
PC Thisby then resorted to seeking advice from his Sergeant, and made the following radio call:
“Alright Serg, I need advice. So we stopped the car, guy got out, he stopped on his own accord, I explained why I was talking to him because of Coronavirus etc. and asked him for his details which he then refused so far. He has then got really animated. I’ve explained if he didn’t give us his details I couldn’t clarify the fact that he was a key worker or not and I report him for the whole Coronavirus thing and in order to report him I need his details, if he wouldn’t give his details he’d end up getting nicked.
So, we have detained him eventually, I have threatened him with PAVA. Another call sign has arrived and in the process of him holding against the wall someone from another call sign sworn at him so we have nicked him for resist arrest and public order offence but now because an Officer has sworn at him does that count as a public order offence.”
Following this consultation, PC Thisby approached the Claimant and advised that he had been “Arrested for a Section 4 Public Order Offence and Resist Arrest”. Desmond was then transported to Copnor custody centre.
According to the Custody Record, Desmond had been arrested at 02.20 for using “threatening/abusive/words/behaviour with intent to cause fear/provoke unlawful violence” and for “obstruct/resist a constable in the execution of duty.”
The circumstances of arrest were described as follows:
“Male stopped to give an account as to why he was out. Because aggressive initially refused details refused COVID-19 questions. Initially arrested for failing to provide details, when details obtained, remained being aggressive towards officers and arrested S4POA and resist arrest.”
Desmond was then processed and obliged to provide a fingerprint and DNA sample and be photographed and was then locked in a cell, feeling highly agitated and distressed.
After several hours, a senior officer viewed the arresting officer’s body worn camera footage and concluded that he had concerns as to the validity of the arrest and, on that basis, directed that Desmond should be immediately released. The officer’s account was recorded as follows:
“The initial reason for the encounter is clear that the officer is simply attempting to identify the reason that the detainee was out.
Although the detainee is quite angry immediately an answer is quickly given that he has just returned from work and is on his way home; he points to where his address is within a nearby block of flats. He shows his fluorescent work gear and states that he has been working on the railways for 12 hours and wants to go home.
The arresting officer engages and attempts to explain the reasons for the encounter. He states that one of the reasons to be out of home is for key workers to get to work. The detainee states that he is a key worker, he is working on the railways. The arresting officer asks for the detainee’s details to confirm that he is a key worker, the detainee refuses to provide these. The detainee is becoming more and more animated.
Eventually the detainee is arrested for failing to provide his details to the officers and attempts to pull away from them. He continues to remonstrate very vocally but does eventually provide his name. He is released whilst the officers then continue to attempt to obtain further details from him. He is still very angry about the whole incident and is shouting loudly in the street. Having heard the language used and watched the behaviour the behaviour might constitute an offence under s5 POA if there are MoPs present who might be caused alarm/distress however my concern is that the reason for wanting the detainee’s details (to show he was a key worker) is not actually one of the reasons that people are allowed to leave their house. The actual legislation is that people are allowed to leave home for the travel to work but only if they cannot work from home. In this case based on the male’s disclosure that he has just finished work on the railway and that he shows his hi-viz clothing it would be reasonable to assume that the detainee was indeed on his way home from work. He highlighted that he was going home and pointed the address out and it can be argued that there was no requirement for these additional details (certainly not for the reason presented in any case) and that it was clear the male was going home, was there any need for further interaction?
All subsequent offences then stem from this arrest so my view is that given the concerns over the validity of original arrest I do not believe that it is right or appropriate to take action for his later anger. Whilst I don’t think his language was acceptable it can be justified in the context that he felt (rightly in my view) he had been wronged and was venting his anger over this. He does not threaten violence towards anyone at any point.
I have therefore released him without charge. He was very angry and agitated on release, initially refusing to leave and wanting to be charged with an offence. I explained that I would not do this as I did not believe he had committed an offence. He did eventually leave. I have provided a taxi on account to get him home and supplied my details along with those of the officers dealing with the incident that he requested.”
Desmond was finally released at approximately 06.25 having been in police custody for 4 hours 5 minutes.
As the highlighted section in the senior officer’s review shows, common sense had at last prevailed – but it should never have come to this.
In a situation where emergency ‘curfew’ type powers had been granted to the Police under the Coronavirus Regulations – hastily drafted and unfamiliar to the Police – Officers should have proceeded with caution in order to ensure that they were not exceeding the limits of their powers. This especially applies in a fairly straightforward case such as Desmond’s – in that he had given an account of being a key worker substantiated by his work gear. PC Thisby and his colleagues should have simply walked away at that point, but unfortunately persisted in trying to, unnecessarily and unlawfully, extract all of Desmond’s identity details – as if we lived in a ‘papers please’ Police state. The pride of the Officers then appears to have got in the way of their de-escalating the situation; they apparently wanted to flex their lockdown muscles and responded in the typical manner which Police Officers do when their presumed authority is challenged.
As I have said, in a situation that was difficult for everyone – but where the legislation that had been put in place was not about unnecessarily criminalising normal activities, but simply trying to keep people safe – the Officers could and should have behaved with tact and respect towards Desmond, and if necessary, simply watched him walk back through his own front door. Instead, they manhandled and handcuffed him, pulled him off the street, drove him several miles to custody and locked him in a cell, after forcing him to have close contact with at least half a dozen people. How was such an action at all in keeping with the ethos of the Regulations which the Police were supposed to be enforcing i.e social distancing?
As I pursued this claim on behalf of Desmond, I then encountered a second manifestation of obstructive Police pride, at a much higher level. The Chief Constable of Hampshire admitted legal liability for Desmond’s wrongful arrest and the assault which he had suffered at the hands of the Officers but refused to grant Desmond’s reasonable request for a formal apology from the Chief Constable herself or one of her senior Officers. Indeed, in an attempt to secure such an apology, which was of importance to Desmond who felt morally outraged by what had been done to him, Desmond offered to settle his claim for a significantly lower sum of money if it was accompanied by such an apology.
Hampshire Constabulary refused to take that offer, instead agreeing a financial settlement only, in the sum of £30,000 damages, plus legal costs.
Although this was an excellent outcome for Desmond in financial terms, and he was further vindicated by the Police admission of liability, I am perplexed by the decision of the Chief Constable to refuse an apology letter and instead write out a bigger cheque from what is, at the end of the day, public funds.
Rather than saying “sorry” for this gross over-reach of power, and attempted criminalisation of a heroic key worker, the Chief Constable was prepared to put public money where her mouth should have been.