Below is an account of someone arrested on a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London on their experiences in police custody.
I just wanted to share my experience of how the police are not taking the pandemic seriously and seem to be intentionally denying arrestees the right to use precautions against coronavirus. This won’t be news to anyone who has been out at the demonstrations – where a chant sometimes directed at the coppers is “Where’s your mask!?”. I will try not to speculate why the police seem to be intentionally making their custody suites hubs of infection, and just focus on my experience being arrested at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London last weekend.
Immediately after getting forcefully apprehended, the mask I was using for precautions against infection was ripped off me. It was clear that they were visibly disappointed when they saw I was a white woman, and more so when I eventually spoke and they heard I was British. After vague sexual harassment while two officers argued about which one of them would get to take me for spin they had me pressed up against a wall for two hours in the cold, handcuffed, with both of their bodies against me. It was at this stage I started to calmly assert my concern about coronavirus. I requested what the TFL is asking of people at the moment, which is physical distancing as a matter of safety.
Their response set the tone that prevailed throughout my time in custody: any requests or concerns stated regarding the pandemic would be treated as a trouble-making technique.
They asked if I had symptoms – which I said was irrelevant, we all know that you can be asymptomatic– and they said I didn’t have coronavirus. They said they didn’t have any symptoms and didn’t have coronavirus, I asked if they had been tested, and they hadn’t.
They said that I couldn’t be worried about coronavirus because I was at a demonstration this line was repeated by the custody sergeant. Their logic was that by attending a physically distanced demonstration (in which everyone is wearing masks) I had forfeited my right to maintain precautions against a deadly virus while in custody. From here on I can list many instances where they ridiculed any attempts to get them to take coronavirus seriously.
They put me in a car with five unmasked cops with the windows shut. I was taken to a station much further away than was necessary, prolonging any potential exposure. I was greeted in the loading bay with a big sign that specified that PPE should be worn, yet I was approached by an aggressive unmasked custody sergeant who, when I asked about his PPE, showed me that he was wearing leather gloves. He used a laser temperature gun aimed at my head to find out my temperature. He showed me the reading which he said proved I did not have coronavirus and took me into the station.
I later got body mapped by a nurse who noted my injuries i suffered during the arrest- bruising and bleeding on my jaw, legs, collarbone and wrist. I brought up how ignorant the police seemed to be of the coronavirus threat. She agreed, adding that everyone knew that the temperature gun the custody sergeant was aiming at new arrivals didn’t work, and that the one she had, that touched my ear to take a reading, was functional – however he liked to use the other one because it had a trigger.
I had a filtered n95 mask which they took off me (even though I said I wanted to keep it because it was more effective than a disposable mask). The only reason I was given a disposable one was because of my firm insistence – even though I know that I am only properly protected if they are wearing masks as well. After dragging their feet, a bucket of masks appeared (enough for everyone in the station) and a copper put one on the counter for me. I refused, saying he had contaminated it. The officer who brought me in, still standing so close he was touching my side, told me that this suite was as clean as A and E, they disinfected it every day. I wasn’t impressed and continued demanding a fresh one, which a cop ended up using their dirty gloves to retrieve from the bucket and attached it to my face.
All of this was being treated as though I was inventing the entire pandemic.
After my irritating insistence there started being some weird tokenistic gestures of precautions, to appease me. I didn’t have to sign certain papers – because of the shared pen. They bragged about the new clear window that separated the officer on duty from the new arrivals. This was comical as two unmasked men were standing on either side of me while I was being told of these precautions. When I was finally taken to my cell, four hours after being arrested, police staff ridiculed my concerns by making a pantomime show of keeping two metres away from me.
I had a strange moment when a cop told me that she felt sorry for me for wearing a mask, and that she had tried one two weeks ago but it scratched her nose. She seemed to have missed the substance of my complaint. I asked for hand sanitiser which was either non-existent or unavailable. My own hand sanitiser was taken off me in the initial search and I was not allowed to use it, even under supervision. Water was being passed in cups held by ungloved police staff. Requests for bottled water were refused so arrestees had to drink this potentially contaminated water.
It seemed very punitive to expose arrestees to coronavirus in such a careless way, when only a few weeks ago we were under a government lockdown to stop the spread. I hope that if anyone is arrested they try to maintain precautions as much as they can, if they want to. To keep demanding hand sanitiser and for the police to use masks might at least to denormalise their practices a bit. When I was insistent I was able to get my self a mask, but I recognise that being white British is probably what allowed this very basic thing. I am worried about arrests being used as a scare tactic because a lot of people are getting released with no charge, arrest without any prospect of a prosecution being a long-standing tactic of British policing. It is really disgusting that the threat of arrest comes with a heightened exposure to coronavirus.