Graduate had clothes cut off after intervening in a stop and search

How did this professor of philosophy end up a naked, shackled victim of police brutality? Cambridge graduate, 33, tells how her clothes were cut off by three officers after intervening in a stop-and-search and declining to give her own name

  • Dr Konstancja Duff was handcuffed after intervening in a police stop and search
  • Cambridge graduate, 33, tried to hand the detainee card showing him his rights
  • Koshka was taken to station where she was strip searched and held for 24 hours
  • CCTV of her time in custody has been made public, with officer calling her ‘rank’ 
  • Scotland Yard have apologised for ‘derogatory and unacceptable language’ used

Lying naked on the concrete floor of a police cell, legs bound and her hands cuffed behind her back, Dr Konstancja Duff could scarcely process what was happening.

Surrounding her were three female officers who had cut off her clothes with scissors and were now subjecting her to what was nothing less than a degrading physical assault.

‘As well as being really scared, the overwhelming memory was the pain of it all,’ she recalls.

How had she ended up there? The Cambridge graduate, then 24, had intervened in a police stop and search by trying to hand the detainee a card showing him his rights and declining to give her own name.

The teenager was later found to be carrying a knife and there are some who will argue that Koshka, as she is known by friends, was naive to become involved.

Nevertheless, what happened next is impossible to justify. Koshka was handcuffed and taken to a police station where she was strip searched, manhandled, groped and held in a cell for 24 hours.

On her release, she was then charged with both obstruction and assaulting two police officers.

A frightening six-month wait ensued before she faced magistrates and was acquitted — the start of an eight-year legal battle to hold the police accountable and during which she uncovered horrifying CCTV footage of her time in custody, which was made public this week.

Dr Konstancja Duff (pictured), then 24, had intervened in a police stop and search by trying to hand the detainee a card showing him his rights and declining to give her own name

In it, custody sergeant Kurtis Howard, who had ordered the strip search, can be heard telling officers to ‘treat her like a terrorist’ while other policemen and women mock Koshka, describing her as ‘rank’ and ‘disgusting’ and making unseemly comments about the smell of her underwear.

‘Watching it for the first time last year I felt really sickened,’ Koshka says. 

‘You would think that after what I had been through nothing could shock me but the contempt, the dehumanising attitude, the misogyny — it was disgusting.

‘The prevailing sense the whole time I was in the station was that the police thought there was nothing to stop them, that they had no one to be accountable to. They closed ranks and right up to the last minute they thought they would get away with it.’

Few could surely disagree, including Scotland Yard officials who have finally apologised for the ‘sexist, derogatory and unacceptable language’ used by the officers and awarded Koshka compensation. 

The apology relates only to the CCTV footage and, to Koshka’s knowledge, no one has been disciplined for what happened when she was in the cell.

Nevertheless, the apology comes as some comfort to Koshka, now 33 and an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham. 

Today, she remains plagued by flashbacks and panic attacks, as well as suffering from chronic pain in her wrists as a consequence of injuries from her handcuffs.

Her unusual first name is inspired by her mum’s happy memories of time in Poland, and Koshka is the first to acknowledge she is an unlikely victim of police brutality.

Intellectually and musically gifted, she was raised in Aberdeen and studied philosophy at Cambridge University, followed by post-graduate qualifications at Harvard and the University of London. 

Then in 2011 she enrolled on a masters in piano performance at the Royal College of Music.

Koshka was handcuffed and taken to a police station where she was strip searched, groped and held in a cell for 24 hours. CCTV of her time in custody (above) was made public this week

It was during this period that she was arrested on a balmy May evening in 2013 as she conducted an A-level tutoring session on a picnic bench in an East London community garden around 6pm.

Halfway into the session, she saw around eight police officers descend on a basketball court.

‘Not long after that I heard some signs of distress coming from a young person calling for his mum,’ she says. 

‘That’s when I approached. I could see police had surrounded two black teenagers. One was obviously very scared and saying, ‘You can search me but I just want my mum to be here.’ I felt he needed help.’

While there are those who would question the wisdom of intervening, Koshka was brought up to stand up for what you believe in and says the fact that the 15-year-old was later found to have had a knife hidden in his sock doesn’t change her feelings about what she did.

‘The thing about legal rights is that they are meant to apply to everyone,’ she says.

Her response was also influenced by an incident three years earlier.

In 2010, while attending a peaceful protest against the rise in tuition fees, she was ‘kettled’ — when crowds are contained by police in a restricted area — charged at on horseback and hit with a truncheon in the back and legs by officers.

‘A friend of mine was truncheoned on the head and had to have emergency brain surgery,’ she recalls.

‘It was an eye-opening experience because if somebody had told me before that the police would behave this way, I would have struggled to believe them and thought there must have been something to justify it. There wasn’t. It was a transformative moment.’

Maybe that’s why she was carrying a legal rights card that evening — listing your entitlements after arrest — which she had tucked away, forgotten, in her phone case.

‘I don’t even remember where I got it,’ she recalls. ‘When I remembered I had it, I thought I would ask if they [the teenager] would like it.’

From there the situation escalated rapidly: accused of obstructing the search, within minutes Koshka was arrested and put on the ground in handcuffs before being bundled into the back of a police van, where she recalls hearing the sergeant talking over the radio, describing what had happened.

‘He sounded just like RoboCop… He was gloating,’ she says. ‘He referred to himself as the sheriff.’

Recalling what happened next in detail for the first time, Koshka breaks down in tears on several occasions.

Taken to Stoke Newington police station, she was held in an external cage outside the premises and told she would be strip searched.

She was then carried into a cell where, after being ordered to lie face down on the floor, her legs were tied with restraints before she was stripped naked by three female officers who held her down.

‘They had taken my glasses and I am very short-sighted, so I was completely terrified and disorientated,’ she says.

‘They pulled my trousers off and used scissors to cut off my vest top and bra. I can remember the overwhelming pain from the handcuffs as the metal was cutting into my wrists.’

Today, Koshka (pictured) remains plagued by flashbacks and panic attacks, as well as suffering from chronic pain in her wrists as a consequence of injuries from her handcuffs 

Once she was naked, the three officers turned Koshka on to her back and started groping her breasts before yanking out a silver hoop earring from her ear.

‘One then said, ‘Let’s see if she has any more piercings’, and that was when they stuck their hands down between my legs,’ she says.

It’s not surprising she remains distressed at the memory. Let’s not forget these were also female officers. 

‘It’s difficult to understand what could be going on in your mind when you’re treating somebody like that,’ Koshka says.

While the strip search was not filmed, as the damning CCTV footage shows, we now know those same officers also participated in the abuse at the front desk.

After carrying out Koshka’s clothes to be bagged up, one female officer says: ‘Ugh, I feel disgusting; I’m going to need a shower,’ while a male colleague says she needs ‘defumigating’.

Carried to another cell in a paper jumpsuit, it was only around midnight that Koshka was given access to the solicitor for whom she had repeatedly asked.

‘I had asked for one as soon as I arrived but on my custody record they said I had not been read my rights because I would be incapable of understanding them,’ she says.

‘They were trying to justify their actions by suggesting I was lacking rational capacity.’

When she finally saw a solicitor, he had the presence of mind to photograph some of Koshka’s injuries, which included deep weals on her hands and wrists, a cut on her neck and other bruises from where officers had kneeled on her.

Finally, 24 hours after being arrested, she was told she would be released on bail.

‘A friend picked me up and took me to stay with them,’ she says. ‘I was in a mess.’

In deep shock, she was unable to tell her parents what had happened for several months.

‘It was so traumatic that I found it hard to talk about,’ she says.

As well as obstruction, she was also charged with two assaults on two separate officers, which can carry three-month and six-month jail terms respectively.

‘It was a really terrifying prospect,’ she says quietly. ‘These were potentially life-altering criminal charges.

‘I wasn’t actually able to tell my parents to begin with because I just thought it would be so upsetting for them.’ Nor, at first, was she able to talk about the detail of what had happened.

‘It’s hard enough to talk about any form of sexual assault and the fear that you’re going to be blamed for it. But when the people who’ve assaulted you are the police, so many people’s reaction is, ‘What were you doing to ask for it?’ and I just couldn’t face those kinds of conversations.’

The impact was all too obvious, however: she was unable to work or study due to panic attacks and flashbacks, while the injuries to her wrists also meant she had to postpone her final piano recital for her masters, although she subsequently completed the course. She still has chronic pain in her wrists. 

‘I should have gone to a doctor, but I wasn’t capable,’ she says.

Finally, in November 2013, Koshka appeared before Stratford magistrates to face what she describes as a litany of police lies.

‘The officers involved were shown a photograph of my injuries and asked to explain where they’d come from,’ she recalls.

‘One said that when people come into contact with the police they often start injuring themselves by throwing themselves to the ground or hitting their head. It was ludicrous.’

Scotland Yard officials have apologised and awarded Koshka compensation for the horrific way she was treated at Stoke Newington police station (pictured) in northeast London

It did not persuade the three lay magistrates, who dismissed the charges against her.

‘They explicitly said in their judgment that they believed my account and commented on the fact that the officers couldn’t explain my injuries,’ she recalls.

While the outcome was an enormous relief, it did not mitigate the horror, and a year after the incident Koshka filed a police complaint in an attempt to hold the officers involved accountable. It would be the start of a long battle.

‘They did everything they could to put obstacles in my way,’ she says of the police. ‘It took months, even years, for them to respond to a single letter. I had to fight them every step of the way.’

Two years in, the police concluded there had been no wrongdoing, while a subsequent appeal to the Independent Police Complaints Commission led to the conclusion that the custody sergeant had committed an error by failing to write an adequate reason for the strip search in his records. 

‘They said it was a failure of bookkeeping,’ she says wryly.

Determined to continue the fight, Koshka successfully asked for a judicial review of the IPCC’s findings. 

The commission was instructed to reinvestigate and in 2018 she was told that Sgt Howard had been accused of gross misconduct relating to his decision to order a strip search.

He was cleared after claiming his actions were needed to assess any risk she posed to herself. ‘There was such a barrage of misinformation put out there that at times I even started to doubt myself,’ she says.

Determined it would not end there, Koshka launched legal action and last year finally obtained the CCTV footage from her arrest that she had continually asked for, followed, last November, by the full apology and £6,000 compensation.

The Metropolitan Police has said allegations of misconduct have been referred to its Directorate of Professional Standards and ‘this investigation remains ongoing’.

Significantly, Koshka has declined to release the names of all the officers involved in her treatment, with the exception of the custody sergeant.

‘I haven’t focused on calling for their heads because I think that’s vindictive — it’s the institution that’s the issue,’ she says.

After a year in which the police find themselves under intense critical scrutiny for the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met firearms officer, plus revelations of sexist and racist online chats between officers, it is hard to disagree.

‘Those occasions are devastating for me as they bring it all back and show me nothing has changed,’ says Koshka, who nonetheless acknowledges there are decent, dedicated officers trying to do good. 

‘There are many people who don’t have the voice that I have,’ she says. ‘And that’s why I am speaking out.’

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