Met denies racism after black man ‘choked’ in illegal stop and search

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

The Metropolitan police force is facing a fresh allegation of racism after a black man walking his dog claimed he was choked for 90 seconds in a headlock before being taken back to a police station and strip-searched.

Following a decade-long legal battle for justice, the Met last month accepted that Zac Sharif-Ali was illegally stopped and searched by a white officer, PC Duncan Bullock, on London’s Chiswick Common in December 2012.

Bullock, who was dressed in plain clothes, did not properly identify himself, failing to give his name or station, which made the search unlawful. Sharif-Ali was released without charge the same day.

A letter from the Met’s directorate of professional standards states it is “a matter of regret” that Sharif-Ali was unlawfully searched: “I acknowledge the anxiety and distress this incident caused you and would like to apologise to you on behalf of the Metropolitan police service.” Sharif-Ali received £30,000 worth of damages, bringing to an end his civil claim for compensation against the Met.

However, the letter offers no apology for any force used against Sharif-Ali, who had a mental breakdown in the aftermath of the incident. The Met told the Observer that Sharif-Ali was not stopped and searched because of the colour of his skin. The force also denied that its officer used an unapproved neck restraint and that Sharif-Ali was placed in a prolonged neck hold.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) looked into the case after the Met carried out three internal investigations, all of which it deemed to be inadequate. The resulting IOPC report, which was discussed in court as part of the civil claim brought by Sharif-Ali, says the method of restraint chosen by Bullock appeared to contradict training procedures.

The report also says the reason for restraining Sharif-Ali was unclear to other officers called to the park, and their accounts indicated the manoeuvre “came out of nowhere”. It notes that Bullock accepted Sharif-Ali was struggling to speak while in the neck hold – a technique, which the Metropolitan police officer safety manual warns can lead to serious injury or fatality.

The duty sergeant during the incident told the IOPC that Bullock did not have a good work ethic and would stop and search people around lunchtime, and then “think he would not have anything to do for the rest of the day”. She said: “I remember that day PC Bullock had gone out for his sandwich, so I knew he would bring back a stop and search record form as he always conducted a stop and search when he went to get his lunch.”

The IOPC investigation, which was completed in 2017, concluded that Bullock had a case to answer for misconduct for his decision to stop and search and then strip-search Sharif-Ali. It also found he had a case to answer for the allegation of excessive force against Sharif-Ali.

But a Met police misconduct hearing the following year decided that Bullock had reasonable grounds to search Sharif-Ali, had used force legitimately in the midst of a fast-paced struggle.

Sharif-Ali said the Met apology was worthless and he still had not received justice: “What did I get for being choked to the point I feared I might die? What did I get for being stripped naked and humiliated? What did I get for all the trauma and years of mental health problems?

“No officer has been disciplined. The Met has dragged this out for 10 years. I haven’t been able to heal and move on. It’s like they have gone out of their way to aggravate my pain.”

He said he believed he was targeted because of the colour of his skin: “If I’m doing what everyone else does in a park – walking my dog and eating a sandwich – then which one of my actions gave him any suspicion? I looked casually professional. So, what else is there other than the colour of my skin that would make him think I was doing anything illegal?”

Sharif-Ali, who is a postal worker and aspiring musician, accused the Met of closing ranks and defending wrongdoing: “It shows it goes much higher than just the officers on the street. It runs through the whole institution.”

The incident led to him becoming distrustful and suspicious. His relationship with his partner broke down and he lost touch with friends and family. He was treated by his community mental health team and his GP for nine years following the incident. “It ruined my character, my confidence, my mental state, which affects your ability to obtain work, your ability to seize opportunities. I’ve lost everything,” he said.

Bullock told the IOPC he first approached Sharif-Ali because he was “hanging around the park”, which he subsequently admitted, “sounded very weak”. He later claimed Sharif-Ali was on his phone in a known drug dealing hotspot. But the IOPC found Bullock’s rationale was “poorly supported” as there was no specific intelligence justifying him searching Sharif-Ali. The IOPC, however, noted there was no evidence to support the allegation the search was racially motivated.

The IOPC said that both men offered conflicting accounts of their interaction, with Sharif-Ali and Bullock claiming each of them were rude and aggressive. The report, however, noted that the accounts indicated that Bullock was not relying on conflict management training models, which encourage officers to engage in a respectful, mindful way.

The IOPC heard from another officer that Bullock put Sharif-Ali in a headlock, pushed him to the ground and punched him twice in the shoulder while attempting to put him in handcuffs.

Bullock said he restrained Sharif Ali as he was resisting attempts to handcuff him. He told the IOPC he grabbed him from behind “by the shoulders and neck” and brought him down on to the ground. He added that he continued to hold him as he had an arm out: “I tried to counteract his attempts by using my weight to make the male flush to the floor … as I did, I told the male to stop resisting, as I told him to stop I heard the male struggle to speak. I realised my arm was around his neck and immediately let go.”

However, Sharif-Ali told the IOPC he was talking with the other officers and not resisting when Bullock restrained him. He said: “Suddenly, it became apparent to me that my airways were being cut off while in this chokehold. I was gasping for breath while standing, and I seemed to lose consciousness whereby my legs weakened and as I was about to fall to the floor…. [PC Bullock], knowing I had no strength left, aggressively slammed my chest to the ground, his grip still around my neck.”

The IOPC said force was used on Sharif-Ali, even though he had not been arrested on suspicion of any drugs offences, emphasising that the use of force is only considered reasonable when preventing a crime or arresting an offender. It also noted that Bullock’s account changed over time and contained inconsistencies, with no references to Sharif-Ali using his phone in his contemporaneous account.

Iain Gould, a solicitor who represented Sharif-Ali, said Bullock subjected Sharif-Ali to a gross abuse of power, including a terrifying choke hold around his neck. “In many ways, the worst thing that happened to Zac was not, however, the aggressive actions of Bullock but the callous rejection of Zac’s complaint by the Metropolitan Police, who forced Zac through a tortuous 10-year process of complaint and litigation before finally settling his claim. The Met have shown no remorse for their actions, and if anything seem to have taken pride in fighting PC Bullock’s corner and throwing as many obstacles as possible in the path of my client’s campaign for justice.”

The Met added: “We do not underestimate the impact the use of stop and search can have, and we are redoubling our efforts to listen, engage and explain why we do what we do, and make improvements based on individuals’ lived experience to build trust in the tactic.”