Met apologises to woman for ‘sexist, derogatory’ language in strip-search

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Force pays compensation to Dr Konstancja Duff for language used after CCTV captures officers’ comments

The Metropolitan police have apologised and paid compensation to an academic for “sexist, derogatory and unacceptable language” used by officers about her when she was strip-searched.

“What’s that smell? Oh, it’s her knickers,” officers at a north-east London police station said to each other after Dr Konstancja Duff was held down on the floor and her clothes cut off. “Is she rank?” another said.

The Met apologised to Duff, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, after CCTV video capturing the officers’ conversations was disclosed to her as part of a civil action against the force.

Insp Andy O’Donnell, of the Met’s directorate of professional standards, told her: “I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely and unreservedly apologise for the sexist, derogatory and unacceptable language used about you and for any upset and distress this may have caused.

“I hope that settlement of this claim and this recognition of the impact of what happened that day will enable you to put this incident behind you.”

Duff said: “In every detail the footage backed up what I had said in my statements for years and years.” Officers had claimed they had acted with professionalism, strip-searching her for her own safety because she would not give them her name.

“There was such a barrage of misinformation that they put out that I actually, even though I was there and I knew that it was false, had almost started to doubt myself,” she said.

“It was such an effective gaslighting: ‘We were just concerned for your mental health, that was why we had to – for your own good – forcibly strip you naked and mash you up.’

“It was so obviously not what they were doing at the time. They were doing it as punishment, they were doing it as intimidation, they wanted to soften me up and get my details.”

Duff was arrested on 5 May 2013 on suspicion of obstructing and assaulting police after trying to hand a legal advice card to a 15-year-old caught in a stop-and-search sweep in Hackney – allegations she was later cleared of in court.

She was taken to Stoke Newington police station, where Sgt Kurtis Howard, in charge of the custody area, ordered the search when she refused to cooperate with officers.

In 2018 Howard appeared before a disciplinary panel, which cleared him of gross misconduct. He argued the search was necessary to assess any risk Duff might pose to herself, and its chair concluded his actions were those of a responsible officer.

The CCTV footage now obtained by Duff of the police station custody area on the day she was searched shows Howard telling officers to show her “resistance is futile” and to search her “by any means necessary”.

“Treat her like a terrorist,” he says. “I don’t care.”

In a cell, three female officers bound Duff by her hands and feet, pinned her to the floor and cut her clothes off with scissors. Duff described the ordeal, which left her with a number of visible injuries, as like a sexual assault.

The CCTV footage then shows the officers who searched Duff returning to the reception. A male officer asks them: “Didn’t find anything untoward on her, ladies?”

“A lot of hair,” one of the female officers replies. The others laugh.

About a minute later, as two male officers go through Duff’s possessions, one asks in mock alarm: “Sorry, sorry, what’s that smell?”

“Oh, it’s her knickers, yeah?” his colleague replies.

A female officer then returns again from handling Duff. “Ugh, I feel disgusting; I’m going to need a shower,” she says.

“You need defumigating,” a male officer tells her.

Another female officer asks her: “Is she rank?”

“No, she’s not actually,” she says.

“She is, her clothes stink,” another male officer says.

“Is it? Her body isn’t,” she replies.

The Met did not say whether any officers had faced disciplinary action, but said allegations of misconduct relating to the comments had been referred to its professional standards directorate. “This investigation remains ongoing,” it said.

But Duff said individual officers were not the issue. She said the exchanges shown in the CCTV exposed “the culture of sexualised mockery, the dehumanising attitude” shown during her strip-search. Officers’ taunts of her in the cell, out of view of CCTV, were worse than those captured on camera, she said.

“The crucial issue is that racism, misogyny [and] sexual violence, are normalised in policing,” said Duff, who has written widely on the politics of police abolition.

“And the way in which they treated me, the fact that’s normal is shown by the way that at every level of the system it was rubber-stamped for eight years.

“Because the scrutiny is always placed on the person who has been subject to violent policing, looking for something about them which means that they deserved it. Any way in which you have not complied, or you have stood up to them, or you have resisted, is taken as a justification for an escalation of force and violence against you.”

Duff’s case has come to light as the Met finds itself under the spotlight for what critics have described as a culture of institutional misogyny. The rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a Met firearms officer, prosecutions of serving officers for rape, and revelations of sexist and racist online chats between officers have led to renewed questions about sexism in the force.

In October, the Met brought in the former Whitehall troubleshooter Louise Casey to investigate why leaders had so far failed to solve the problem.

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