A Metropolitan police officer who ordered the strip search of an academic, in part because she would not disclose her name while in detention, has been cleared by a disciplinary panel.
Sgt Kurtis Howard had faced a possible finding of gross misconduct over claims that his order to search Konstancja Duff, 29, was a breach of the police standards of professional behaviour.
On Thursday, however, halfway through a hearing that had been expected to last three days, the panel decided Howard had no case to answer.
After she had stood up to tell panel members what she thought of the judgment, Duff, a lecturer in political philosophy at Nottingham University, and her lawyer were ushered from the Met’s Empress State building in Fulham, west London.
She told the Guardian: “What I said precisely to the panel was: ‘You are endorsing the commonplace use of repressive and violating tactics like strip searching to punish and intimidate anyone who does not simply go along with being treated unjustly by police.’
“They are effectively saying: ‘This is our policy; Met police policy is to strip search anyone who stands up for their rights or the rights of somebody else.’
“This makes very clear that we are not dealing with one bad apple, they are closing ranks and saying this is Met police policy. That’s my sense of what this judgment means.
“That does need to challenged.”
Duff was arrested in May 2013 on the Wilton estate, Hackney, after trying to hand a legal advice card to a 15-year-old caught in a stop-and-search sweep. She was taken to Stoke Newington police station.
CCTV footage played to the hearing showed how officers had carried her from a van into the cage at the back of the station after she went limp, in what she described to panel members as an act of passive resistance.
She refused to speak to officers, except for asking for a doctor. Howard told her that she would be strip searched in an effort to ascertain her identity and she was then carried to a cell where three female officers bound her feet and cut off her clothes with scissors.
Duff was subsequently cleared of charges of obstruction and assaulting police. She pursued a complaint about her treatment, but it was only after she sought a judicial review of a decision by the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, that Howard was put before a disciplinary panel.
The decision to throw out the case came after Nicholas Yeo, representing Howard, had argued that the search was justified by Duff’s refusal to cooperate with officers while in detention, meaning they could not carry out a proper risk assessment.
Maurice Cohen, the chair of the panel, said: “Sgt Howard was running a busy custody suite and his primary responsibility was the safety of the staff and detainees and [he] must run a continuous risk assessment.
“He must consider the demeanour of a detainee, their vulnerability and whether they pose a risk to themselves or others and he was unable to ascertain from Dr Duff whether she suffered from any mental illness, other vulnerability or whether she was on drugs.”
Cohen concluded that, as Howard was unaware whether Duff may have had anything that she would not be allowed to have in custody, his actions were those of a responsible officer.
Lawrence Barker, who represented Duff, said he believed the decision contained errors in its interpretation of evidence and its application of the law.
“It seems to me there’s almost certainly a challenge in there,” he said. “The question will be what can be achieved by that challenge.”