Exclusive: Officers accused of ‘grossly absurd racial stereotyping’ after carrying out controlled explosion on vehicle parked in City
A Muslim man has launched legal action against the police over alleged discrimination after officers blew up part of his car following an “Islamophobic” call from a member of the public.
Hamza, who has asked for his surname not to be disclosed, was taking his disabled father to an appointment in central London when he received a call from a City of London Police officer notifying him a woman had reported his vehicle as suspicious.
The 26-year-old told The Independent he had parked his car legally near Bank underground station on single yellow line with a disability badge clearly displayed in the windshield. When Hamza returned to his car, he found officers had cordoned off surrounding streets and conducted a controlled explosion on the vehicle in order to gain access to the boot.
Hamza was stunned by the events and believes the call from the member of the public was motivated by his appearance, including his beard and jalaba – a traditional Algerian robe.
“I’ve been in a state of shock since it happened, ”he told The Independent. “I was aware that scenarios like this happen, which highlight how ethnic and religious minorities are viewed as alien to wider society, but this incident really drove that home.
“I feel like as soon as the police got my description, they overreacted. Even though I was born and bred in London, and worked here all my life, to be targeted and singled out in this manner shows how some people view Muslims.
“We always hear that the UK is a tolerant society where people are free to practice their religions – but when it really comes down to it, that doesn’t mirror the reality.”
City of London Police said its officers “followed safety plans” by carrying out a controlled explosion following a report of “someone running from a car apparently abandoned”.
But Hamza said: “The police took a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach. They should have called me first, as opposed to conducting a controlled explosion on my car and then calling to find out if I was in the area and asking for me to return. Had I been there, I would have opened my car myself and given them permission to search it.”
When Hamza returned to his car, officers were waiting for him and the surrounding streets were cordoned off, with City of London police tweeting details of the “incident”. Nothing of concern was found in Hamza’s vehicle.
He said: “It was embarrassing, humiliating, to come back and see the entire Bank station on lockdown and people having their phones out recording me.
“The irony is, were an attack actually taking place, I would like to think that I would be the person running towards the individual responsible attempting to stop him while everyone else is running away.
“It was demoralising and changed my perception. It’s unfortunate that some people think of me as an threat when they dont even know me.”
Hamza said incident has had a lasting psychological impact on him.
He said: “Every time I’m in public, I’m wondering what people think of me in the back of my mind. I’m thinking ‘what does this person think of me? Are they judging me because of my religion?’,”
Hamza has now instructed a specialist solicitor to pursue a legal case against the polic and is seeking damages and an apology. A pre-action letter sent to the the force and seen by The Independent alleges officers breached equalities and human rights legislation by discriminating against him and damaging his personal property.
Hamza’s solicitor, Iain Gould, said the case showed “grossly absurd racial stereotyping” drove the actions of some police officers.
“My client was considered fair game to have his property damaged in a most distressing manner simply because of assumptions based on his clothes and skin colour,” he told The Independent.
“I simply do not accept that this would have happened if Hamza had been a white businessman in a suit.
“His legal claim is not just about obtaining personal compensation and an apology – to which he is absolutely entitled – but exerting pressure to try to help the police reform themselves.”
Cage, an advocacy group which has been working on behalf of Hamza, praised his courage in sharing his story “despite the embarrassment and psychological distress it caused him”.
Anas Mustapha, head of public advocacy at the organisation, said: “Decades of so called ‘war on terror’ policies have legitmised Islamophobic prejudices against Muslims and this case illustrates the absurd lengths this has reached to.
“It’s incredible that the police have yet to formally apologise to our client. The police must revise the policies that enabled their actions and demonstrate a commitment to tackle institutional islamophobia seriously.”
Chief Superintendent Steve Heatley, of City of London Police, said: “On 11 April, we received a call from a concerned member of the public, who reported someone running from a car apparently abandoned in the City.
“In the interests of public safety, officers followed safety plans and as a precaution a specialist team from the Met carried out a small, controlled explosion to open the car boot.
“This established that there was no danger posed by the vehicle to members of the public and the area was returned to normal.”