In Depth

Dr Konstancja Duff’s long road to justice for ‘dehumanising’ police strip-search

Met says sorry for ‘sexist, derogatory and unacceptable’ language used by officers

The Metropolitan Police has publicly apologised for the verbal abuse of an academic during a strip search almost a decade ago that she claims left her with multiple injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The force admitted that officers used “sexist, derogatory and unacceptable language” about Dr Konstancja Duff following her arrest for obstruction in May 2013. Duff, now an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, was detained after trying to hand a “know your rights” legal advice card to a black teenager caught in a stop-and-search sweep.

Duff, then 24, was taken to Stoke Newington Police Station in north London, where she was carried to a cell and bound before three female officers cut off her clothes with scissors and ripped out her ear piercings. 

‘Three officers on top of me’

Duff has described how she was stripped completely naked, despite police guidelines stating that suspects should not be required to remove all of their clothes at the same time. She said that the officers “grabbed” her breasts and touched her genitals, claiming they were looking for genital piercings. 

“It was three officers on top of me but it felt like it was more because they were kneeling on me with their full weight and they were all over me,” she told the BBC in 2018.

In comments caught on CCTV footage following the strip search, a male officer inspecting Duff’s possessions in the station reception asked: “Sorry, sorry, what’s that smell?” Another male officer replied: “Oh, it’s her knickers, yeah?” 

“Is she rank?” asked a female officer. “She is, her clothes stink,” a male officer answered. 

The video footage – published by The Guardian this week – also showed Sgt Kurtis Howard, who was in charge of the station custody area, telling officers to demonstrate to Duff that her “resistance is futile”, to search her “by any means necessary” and to “treat her like a terrorist”.

“It was really clear that they were trying to humiliate me,” Duff, who only gained access to the footage last year, told BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour on Tuesday. “It was really dehumanising language… it does give a kind of peephole into a culture of misogyny and immaturity.” 

Injuries and derailed degree

Duff was a final-year master’s student in piano performance at the Royal College of Music when she was arrested, but “says her injuries meant she could not practise for her recital and had to postpone the completion of the master’s until the following year”, said the BBC.

These injuries reportedly included cuts and bruises on her arms, a 5in cut on her collarbone and ear pain where a piercing was removed. Duff said she also suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had “intrusive thoughts about the strip search [which] often brought on panic attacks” for months afterwards.

Duff was later charged with two counts of assaulting a police officer and one charge of obstructing a police officer, but was acquitted of all charges following a trial. However, the police watchdog (then known as the Independent Police Complaints Commission, or IPCC) did not uphold her complaint of wrongful arrest.

Legal battle begins

Following her acquittal, Duff made a formal complaint about her treatment. But it was only when she sought a judicial review against the IPCC’s decision that custody sergeant Howard was put before a disciplinary panel.

Howard faced a misconduct hearing in August 2018 over alleged breaches of the Met’s standards of “professional behaviour in respect of authority, respect and courtesy, orders and instructions, and discreditable conduct”, Metro reported at the time.

But he was cleared of gross misconduct by the panel without having to give evidence. Halfway through the hearing, the panel decided that he had no case to answer.

Misconduct hearing ‘sham’

Following the verdict, Duff told The Guardian that she had stood up at the hearing and accused the panel of “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”.

Duff told the BBC that the misconduct hearing was a “sham”, adding: “I feel we are dealing with a real culture of impunity that needs to be challenged.” 

The Met said in a statement to the broadcaster that Howard had “made several attempts to respectfully engage with the complainant, all of which were caught on CCTV”, and that he had “reasonable grounds” to authorise the strip search.

Civil claim settled

Duff made a civil claim against the force, which was paid for through crowdfunding. “The costs of a civil action against the police are prohibitive,” she wrote in an article published this week on left-wing site Novara Media. “In my case, the insurance payments alone required a crowdfund to raise £7,560.”

Duff said that the claim was settled by the Met in October 2021, and that “I received £6,000 in compensation and an apology”. But “I don’t believe a word of it”, she added.

After the claim was concluded, allegations of misconduct relating to the officers’ comments were referred to the Directorate of Professional Standards – the body responsible for investigating complaints against the professional conduct of police officers. 

The Met also made a voluntary referral to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), the watchdog that has replaced the IPCC.

CCTV footage revealed

The Met apologised to Duff once again this week after The Guardian published clips from the CCTV footage, which was acquired by Duff last year as part of her civil action. 

In a statement to Duff, Inspector Andy O'Donnell of the Directorate of Professional Standards said he “sincerely and unreservedly” apologised “for the sexist, derogatory and unacceptable language used about yourself and for any upset and distress this may have caused”.

He added: “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 it was “really striking” that the Met had apologised only for the language used by the officers. “They apologised because they got called out for using embarrassing language, but they didn’t apologise for violently stripping me naked,” she told Women’s Hour.

“At every stage, they have used false accusations to discredit me,” she said, adding: “I just feel like I’ve been on trial for eight years.”

The publication of the CCTV footage followed what The Times’ crime correspondent John Simpson described as “a string of scandals for the Met”. High-profile cases including the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving firearms officer, and the gross misconduct of two officers who shared photos of two murdered sisters, have highlighted “deep-seated cultural problems” in the force, Simpson wrote.

A Met investigation into Duff’s allegations of misconduct is ongoing.

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