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Shocking strip search case shows flaws in the handling of police complaints and misconduct proceedings

Following the settlement of a case on behalf of our 26 year old female client who was arrested and forcibly strip searched by male police officers, there has been widespread disbelief and criticism at the actions of the Metropolitan Police.

Our client was arrested by police officers after leaving a nightclub where she suspected her drink had been spiked. Police had been called to assist paramedics in dealing with a distressed female. Following her arrest, she was taken to Chelsea Police Station where CCTV showed that she was subject to a strip search by one female and four male officers. She was held down whilst every item of her clothing was forcibly removed, with her bra cut from the front of her body. She was then left naked in a cell with CCTV broadcasting images of what was taking place back to the custody desk. All she can remember of being in the cell is strange men putting their hands on her and taking her clothes off; she thought she was being raped.

This search was in breach of a whole raft of police codes of practice that strip searches should be undertaken by members of the same sex only and should not even be in sight of members of the opposite sex, that a strip search should not take place in a CCTV cell, that detainees should only be required to remove half of their clothing at any one time and that they should be allowed to dress as soon as the search is completed.

The understandable distress this event has caused our client has been further compounded by the staggering failure of members of the Metropolitan Police who have dealt with her case; not only those officers she had contact with immediately following her arrest but also those involved in considering her complaint about her treatment, and those responsible for ensuring appropriate disciplinary action was taken against the officers involved.

The catalogue of errors and delays in the case are quite staggering and include:

  • While under arrest, our client was encouraged not to have a solicitor present during her interview as this would cause delay. Everyone has the right to free legal advice at the police station, but the custody officer negatively influenced our client’s decision by suggesting that she would be in and out more quickly if she did not have a solicitor. The Independent Police Complaint Commission (‘IPCC’) found that given our client’s ‘highly vulnerable state, having been through a very traumatic experience’ the comments were ill advised and fell below the level of service expected of police officers. The IPCC directed that the Custody Officer should be subject to management action;
  • The officer who interviewed our client failed to properly investigate her complaint that someone had spiked her drink at the Supper Club and it was even suggested that the client was responsible for the failure to investigate because she did not make the allegation in the ‘correct manner’. The IPCC directed that the officer responsible be subject to management action;
  • The initial police complaint investigation upheld our client’s complaint that her strip search was in breach of the codes of practice however they found no evidence of misconduct on the part of the officers involved. The IPCC disagreed and recommended that the five officers involved in the strip search should face a misconduct meeting. These misconduct meetings eventually took place in December 2013. Two of the officers were issued with formal written warnings and three others were to have ‘management advice’. At no stage was our client informed when the meetings would take place or asked if she would like to attend, no one from the Directorate of Professional Standards even wrote to our client to explain the results of misconduct meetings. In fact our client was only informed the misconduct meetings had gone ahead some eight months later, as a result of persistent enquiries on our part. Following a complaint a service failure was found;
  • The Directorate of Professional Services initially determined that the Custody Sergeant who authorised and failed to record the strip search should only face a misconduct meeting, however the IPCC later determined that there was a case to answer for gross misconduct and she should face a misconduct hearing ‘for the numerous and significant failures in overseeing the detention of the client.” Unbeknownst to our client however the Custody Sergeant’s misconduct meeting took place four days before the IPCC’s report was released. Any disciplinary proceedings should have been placed on hold until the police had received the IPCC’s report;
  • Our client waited for two years after the conclusion of the IPCC’s report for the Custody Sergeant’s hearing for gross misconduct to take place. We were only informed that the gross misconduct proceedings had been halted on Friday 27th February 2015; when calling to obtain details about the hearing which had been scheduled to begin on Monday 2nd March 2015. The gross misconduct proceedings were halted as it was felt it would be an abuse of process for the Custody Sergeant to face two separate misconduct proceedings for the same incident;
  • Again our client was not kept properly informed about the proceedings against the Custody Sergeant and only found out the conclusion of the Custody Sergeant’s disciplinary proceedings on 29th May 2015 (over four years after the incident and two years after the proceedings took place);
  • To add insult to injury the Custody Sergeant was merely told that if she worked as a custody officer in the future she should familiarise herself with the rules which relate to custody procedure and ensure she seeks support from her line manager until she is confident that she can perform the role to the required standard. Of concern is that a custody officer’s role is to be responsible for the care and welfare of arrested persons who are brought to the custody suite.

While the Metropolitan Police Service has agreed to settle the claim two years after the IPCC investigation and some four years after the original incident, our client has, as yet, received no apology.

This case is not only another stark example of the police complaints handling system not being fit for purpose, it also demonstrates the police’s inability to learn lessons and to say sorry when they got it so very wrong.