A city councillor of a minority ethnic background was arrested after going to his local police station to report a crime because officers were searching for a suspect who “looked like” him. Afzal Shah, a Labour councillor in Bristol, has questioned whether white colleagues on the police and crime panel he sits on would have been arrested in the same circumstances and suggested there was “institutional bias” in the force.
Avon & Somerset police have apologised, but said officers were acting in good faith when they arrested Shah, who describes himself as British Asian or British Pakistani. But Shah told the Guardian on Tuesday: “When I was being de-arrested, I said, ‘I want to know why I was arrested.’ I told them this is illogical. I’m finding this deeply distressing and troubling. The police said: ‘We thought you were someone else.’
“I’m a councillor, being a member of the police and crime panel. Imagine one of my colleagues in Taunton, Weston-super-Mare or Yeovil walking into a police station to report a very serious offence. Other things being equal, would they have been arrested in similar circumstances? I don’t think so. I honestly don’t believe they would have been arrested. There’s bias there. As far as I’m concerned, there’s bias in the police logic as to why I was arrested.
“I’m not satisfied. There are lot of good police officers. We are fortunate to have a good chief constable. But is there institutional bias within the police force? Absolutely.”
Shah went to the Trinity Road police station in Bristol to report a crime on behalf of someone else. Instead of taking his statement, officers told him they believed he was a person suspected of making threats of violence and read him his rights.
He explained that he was a local councillor and had been in a council meeting when the alleged crime he was being arrested for took place. This was ignored, he says.
There are no custody cells at Trinity Road, but Shah was placed in the back of a secure police car in the public car park outside the police station. Police then realised they had the wrong person and de-arrested him.
Shah said: “I was told it was a misunderstanding, and that the person who they were looking for looked like me. They said: ‘We had a description similar to yourself.’ During my time as a local Labour councillor – including as a member of the region’s police and crime panel – I have worked hard to build bridges between communities in Easton and our local constabulary.”
In a statement, Avon & Somerset police said: “Police have apologised for the inconvenience and distress caused when he was arrested and detained in a police car after being wrongly identified by a victim as one of the perpetrators of a crime.”
Supt Andy Bennett said: “Officers acted in good faith in arresting Cllr Shah at Trinity Road police station after another man who was in the station reporting an offence visually identified him as one of the people involved. This identification was later found to be incorrect and Cllr Shah was released without having been taken to a custody unit.
“We are extremely grateful for Cllr Shah’s contribution to community policing, both as a councillor and as a member of the police and crime panel. We have apologised to him for the distress and embarrassment this incident has clearly caused him and welcome this opportunity to clarify this publicly.”
A constable from the same force will be tried next month for allegedly shooting one of its race relations advisers with a Taser electronic weapon. Judah Adunbi, a former member of an independent advisory group to Avon & Somerset police, was allegedly shot by an officer with a Taser stun gun in Easton, the ward that Shah represents.
A video of the incident was widely shared on social media and made headlines around the world. PC Claire Boddie, of Avon & Somerset police, has denied common assault and her trial is due to be heard by deputy senior district judge Tan Ikram next month.
At the end of last year, a review of the investigation into the murder of Iranian refugee Bijan Ibrahimi in Bristol concluded there was institutional racism within Avon & Somerset police.