Illustration: R. Rowland
On March 31, the Independent Police Complaints Office (IOPC) appealed for witnesses to a stop and search incident in Bristol that took place in Easton on February 16.
The incident involved Yusuf, a 20-year-old apprentice engineer who got stopped and searched on his way home from work. He has since made a number of formal complaints about being racially profiled and officers’ alleged use of excessive force during the search. As a result, one of the Avon and Somerset officers under investigation has been placed on restricted duties.
Now Yusuf talks exclusively to the Bristol Cable about being ‘violently’ stopped and searched by police, being pepper sprayed and ‘kneed in the privates’. This is at least the fifth time in two years that he’s been stopped and searched in the street by the police, despite the fact he doesn’t have a criminal record and they’ve never found anything on him.
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Stop and search is a controversial tactic. Hailed by the government as a ‘vital tool’ in reducing crime, it’s been heavily criticised for its racial bias – Black and Asian people are stopped far more often than white people, with Black men nearly 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched by Avon and Somerset Police than white men. Avon and Somerset Police conducted 629 stop and searches last December and found something illegal 23.6% of the time.
The use of it has fallen in the last decade, a report by human rights group Justice found in February this year, but not for people from ethnic minorities. They’ve asked the Home Office for an independent evaluation of “the impact and effectiveness of these searches”.
Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which has attracted nationwide protests since being announced in March, stop and search could become more prevalent as police would have more powers to stop and search people who’ve been previously convicted of knife and offensive weapons offences.
Pepper sprayed and ‘kneed in the privates’
Yusuf was having a cigarette on his way home from his job as a plant mechanic in February when he saw an officer watching him. Moments later the officer ran to him, grabbed his hands while Yusuf was still holding the cigarette, and pushed him against the wall. The officer said he was stopping and searching him on the Misuse of Drugs Act. The Cable has seen CCTV footage that shows him coming up to Yusuf and then several other officers joining.
Police are allowed to conduct a stop and search if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe a crime has been committed. “I told him, ‘Why me? I’ve literally just stood here,’” Yusuf tells the Cable. “He said, ‘You’re in an area well known for drugs, you never know.’” Yusuf says he could see from the officer’s face that he was agitated and he was shouting at another officer to come and assist. The officer had Yusuf against the wall. “I told him, ‘Let go of me.’” After that, Yusuf tells us, things got nasty.
“He’s then had enough and used his knees to knee me in my privates, even though I haven’t even tried running.” Yusuf says that as he bent over in pain, the officer twisted his hand to handcuff him and another officer, on arriving, pepper sprayed him in one of his eyes. Then, he says, the first officer pushed him to the floor and handcuffed him with his knee on top of him. He says his phone got smashed and his laptop was damaged during all this, leaving him having to buy another on his apprentice wage.
“And obviously I was on the concrete, my face was on the concrete. I never really opened my left eye, my eyes were hurting.”
A crowd had started to gather and Yusuf says the officer made him stand up to get him into the car. He was in a lot of pain and asked the officer to let him sit back down, but the officer refused. Yusuf says the officer making the arrest kept turning his body cam off and on throughout the incident, which the other officer said was acceptable because she had hers on.
Once at Trinity police station, Yusuf was strip searched. While he was waiting for this to happen, temporarily blinded by the pepper spray and with his hands cuffed behind his back, he says the officers stood around him started laughing and making jokes about his trousers falling down, telling him he was having a “wardrobe malfunction”.
“They’re just looking at me, I am trying to pull it up.” Eventually one of them pulled up his trousers.
During the strip search, the officer who’d made the arrest told Yusuf to not make any sudden movements or he’d Taser him. No drugs were found on him. At a search of the scene, officers found some small empty bags that they think had previously had weed in. They asked Yusuf if they were his. “I told him no, but they still took it with them.” Another officer went through his bag, which had his laptop and papers for his apprenticeship. The officer who had pepper sprayed him picked up his bank card and kept repeating his name while looking at him, saying she wouldn’t forget it.
Nothing was said about him being out during lockdown when he was first stopped, but Yusuf had a hole in his trousers which officers said proved he hadn’t been working. Before letting him leave, they gave him a Covid fine for being out during lockdown and a resisting arrest charge, despite the fact he’d told them he’d been on his way back from work and had his apprenticeship college work with him and the train ticket from his journey to Avonmouth.
“I’ve been stopped and searched before. When they come to you, they don’t put your hands on you straight away. He [the main officer] never even asked where am I going, what am I doing on this street, for the Covid fine, or [explained] how I’m breaking the rules.”
On his way out of the station, Yusuf told the arresting officer he was going to file a complaint about him but he says the officer didn’t take him seriously: “He’s there, joking around, thinking it’s a joke.” Another officer walking behind him then grabbed him, telling him to not get too close to the officer he was talking to.
‘I never thought the police could just do that’
Yusuf tells the Cable the whole incident left him feeling “violated”. “Because he [the main officer] picked me off the street, put me into a room. I couldn’t do anything the whole time because I had no power. He’s in control of the whole situation even though it’s me getting violated.”
The next day Yusuf got up as normal and went to work. He didn’t want his mother to know what had happened.
“At the time I wasn’t planning to tell no one because I was kind of scared. I didn’t want my mum to get involved with the police because that’s a long process and they’re going to come to the house. I didn’t want to get my mum worried so I tried to brush it off. But I couldn’t brush it off, so I had to tell her the next day.”
When he found blood in his urine, they went to the hospital. Yusuf’s mother said she never expected something like that from a police officer. “I never thought the police could just do that, someone walking back from work at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. And they arrested him, and the way they humiliated him.”
“I was really, really upset.”
A spokesperson from Avon and Somerset Police said, “Avon and Somerset Police continue to cooperate with an ongoing investigation by the IOPC into the stop and search of a 20-year-old man on Belmont Street, Bristol on 16 February 2021”.
‘Black people are constantly worrying about their interaction with the police’
“You cannot just search young people walking on the streets in the daytime for nothing,” his mother tells the Cable. “Just because the police made eye contact with you and you look at him doesn’t mean you have to be searched.”
This isn’t the first time Yusuf has been randomly chosen for a stop and search. He counts at least five times since he was 18. He says that being repeatedly stopped by police has left him feeling “violated, embarrassed, judged”.
“The thing with the police is they’ve got all the power over you, you’ve got no power against them,” he tells us. The repeated targeting has made him believe that he can’t trust the police and has left him feeling “literally powerless. I’m literally powerless throughout stop and search.”
He tells the Cable that he’s making the complaint now because he wants the officers to be held accountable, and also he wants to get his name out of the system and to not get stopped by police a few times a year. “I want the officer to be held accountable for everything he did to me, and an explanation why he did it to me.”
Hibo Mahamoud, Managing Director of TALO, a community organisation that has been supporting the family with the complaint, says that stop and searches damage relationships between young Black men and the police. She tells the Cable that it’s “wrong in itself” for stop and search to become a normality in young Black men’s lives.
“It shouldn’t be a normal activity that happens to young Black males, where their privacy is invaded and violated, where they’re assumed to be involved in illegal activities, where they are stereotyped just because of the colour of their skin, style of their hair or what they wear.
“When you get stopped multiple times a day, it creates a distrust of the police,” says Hibo. “It’s deemed as a right of passage these days, and it shouldn’t be. Black people are constantly worrying about their interaction with the police, or the interaction of their children and what could possibly go fatally wrong in the hands of the police.”
“There are too many judgements about young Black men who are just trying to carry out their daily activities. This is just widening the relationship between authorities and the police and young Black men.”
It looks like this is the case with Yusuf, who says he doesn’t trust the police and wouldn’t go to them if he needed help. Though this was only the latest of several stop and searches, it was the first time he got strip searched and the first time he was treated with such violence. He’s had stop and searches in the past where he says he’s “been treated alright”.
“I won’t trust the police again, 100% never, never,” he says.
Hibo says the stop and search legislation needs to be reviewed, “because it’s definitely not working. It’s just giving too much to police officers and there are some officers, like the ones in question, that are too power hungry.”
Any witnesses to the incident are asked to contact the IOPC on 0300 303 5726 or email: Belmontstreet@policeconduct.gov.uk.