A trans woman describes how police stripped her and sprayed her with stinging spray, forcing her to wash her face with toilet water.
Avon and Somerset police, in south-west England, have now agreed to pay her substantial damages.
The events took place in October 2015 following an incident at a hospital in Southmead, Bristol.
The mental health team refused to admit Ms C (name withheld for legal reasons). And she responded by trying to hang herself from a light fitting in the hospital.
Police arrived, charged her with criminal damage and took her into custody.
‘Are you Mr or Mrs today?’
Ms C tells us: ‘I was wearing a bra, jumper and leggings – everyday female clothing. And every identity document was in my name, and very obviously female. I’d dealt with the police before, and never had any problems.
‘Yet when I arrived at the police station, the officer booking me in asked if I was ‘Mr or Mrs today’?
‘I asked them over and over to use my correct gender, but he and other officers persistently misgendered me.’
This is backed up by the custody record which at this point refers to her as ‘he’.
Matters took a turn for the worse when the police concluded Ms C was likely to self-harm. They decided they needed to remove Ms C’s clothing and get her into a ‘suicide suit’. This is a tear resistant single piece garment used with prisoners and patients to mitigate the risk of suicide.
Pinned down and stripped
Ms C says: ‘Everything happened very quickly, and I was still recovering from an overdose so my memory of that night is not perfect.
‘Two male officers grabbed me, marched me off to a cell and told me to remove my clothes. I co-operated, taking off my ear-rings, when a female officer asked me to. But I was shaking and unable to remove them unaided.
‘They insisted I remove my bra. I do have breasts: so I put my hands over my chest and said I would, but for dignity I wanted only a woman present. They just kept saying no.
‘All of a sudden they grabbed me again, pulled me to the floor. There were male officers removing my clothes on the floor.’
CCTV footage shows that, despite her protests, she was held down and her bra forcibly removed.
But the issue of compliance is key and remains disputed. In a later statement, Ms C says she was prepared to comply with police requests if she was assisted and searched by female police officers. She claims she only stopped complying in response to police insistence on male officers being present and involved.
Ms C tells us she had previously been raped, and recently attacked. She therefore found standing naked in front of male officers humiliating and embarrassing.
The police, by contrast, maintain their actions were in response to her non-compliance.
‘I bathed my eyes in toilet water’
Because Ms C was still refusing to do as asked, one officer sprayed her with PAVA incapacitating spray. This stung her whole face.
She was pinned down by two female and three male officers. Two officers, one male one female, removed her trousers. Another forcibly removed her bra.
Ms C is clearly upset as she tells us what happened next.
‘I was distressed and crying. After they sprayed me, they brought me a pair of shorts, and locked me up semi-naked. I had no water so I bathed my eyes in toilet water to take away the pain of the spray.
‘I remember putting a plastic mattress up against the door because people were just coming by and looking in at me. That wasn’t necessary for suicide watch, because they could see me on CCTV.’
It was a stressful night, during which a nurse saw Ms C. But officers returned her clothing and she appeared calmer.
Second suicide attempt
However, in the early hours of the morning, police say Ms C again exhibited suicidal behaviour. They say she tied her leggings around her neck.
A male officer entered her cell, sprayed her with PAVA a second time and pushed her head to the ground. As he did so he apparently said something like this ‘is what you get for being a naughty girl’.
Ms C’s recollection of these events is slightly different.
She says: ‘Yes, they brought my clothes back. But piece by piece, and grudgingly. Everything was done to humiliate. One officer dangled my panties before me. My bra was dirty, wet. I think it had just been kicked around the corridor.
As for her ‘suicide attempt’, she says: ‘I woke to a vivid dream – nightmare really. I may have wrapped my leggings round my neck.
‘An officer came into the cell, demanding I hand them over. And then, without provocation, sprayed me in the face. He left, taking my blanket and leggings. Then, for no reason, returned and just pushed me very hard in the head.’
Ms C also claims police humiliated her further by taking her out of her cell naked. However, there is no footage of this happening and this claim was rejected by the police.
‘I am at risk of rape but too afraid of the police’
She tells us that she has no idea why the police were so hostile.
She says: ‘I go over and over what happened that night and I want to understand why. Because I have interacted with police and security guards on many occasions and never ever been treated like this.
‘Why did they need to arrest someone who had just attempted suicide? Why did they take away my bra and panties?‘It was a mix of lad culture and transphobia – no better than the average street mob. Everyone was in on it. Worse: they seemed convinced they would get away with it.
‘Now, I am still at risk of abuse, of violence, of rape. But even if I am attacked, I am too afraid of the police to report any incident to them. I won’t invite them into my home.
‘This has destroyed not just my trust in the police but in professional services as well.’
Police admit assault and discrimination
Ms C was subsequently released and charged for damaging to the hospital light fitting. Jane Ryan, a solicitor specialising in transgender discrimination working with solicitors Bhatt Murphy, took on her case.
In the initial claim, Ryan alleged six causes of action against the police. These include assault, discrimination, harassment and numerous breaches of the Human Rights Act.
The police subsequently admitted two of those claims. They admitted the push to the head was assault. And they agreed that by failing to adhere to their own guidelines for searching trans prisoners, they had discriminated.
They settled the case out of court. We can not state the amount of damages the police agreed to pay. But we can say it was substantial.
Ryan tells us: ‘A formal admission of liability for discrimination by a police force on the basis of gender re-assignment in a non-employment context is unprecedented in this jurisdiction.
‘It is therefore to be welcomed that Avon and Somerset police have accepted my client was discriminated against. [They] have committed to learning from this incident to ensure no other transgender person is subjected to similar appalling treatment.’
What Avon and Somerset police say
A spokesperson for Avon and Somerset police told us they had written to Ms C to apologize.
They added: ‘We will also make sure that any learning from cases such as these is disseminated to all the appropriate areas of the force.’
The case is unusual, and significant. Police rarely admit to discrimination on grounds of gender re-assignment.
James Morton, Scottish Transgender Alliance Manager, who has worked extensively with police and prison authorities in Scotland on custody issues said: ‘While we welcome that the police have accepted liability, their discrimination and assault of a vulnerable trans woman was appalling.
‘For over a decade, police policy across the UK has acknowledged that trans women must be searched by female officers. So it is absolutely unacceptable for police officers to fail to follow their own well established rules.
‘She was suicidal and in need of a place of safety not additional trauma. She seems to us to have also been failed by NHS mental health services.’
There is a final unusual footnote to this story. Police initially conceded Ms C’s right to be searched by female police officers. But they added this is ‘notwithstanding the risks to the female officers’.
This appears to imply women police officers are less competent to manage some situations than men. We have therefore asked Avon and Somerset to comment on whether women officers are restricted in what duties they carry out. They are yet to respond.
Accessing the police
Incidents like this are rare. You should always have confidence in seeking police help when you need it. If you have problems with police in the UK, LGBTI crime charity Galop may be able to help.