LONDON — The couple, a top British sprinter and a Portuguese track star, were driving their Mercedes through the elegant Maida Vale neighborhood in West London — their 3-month-old son in the back seat — when a police van appeared in their rearview mirror.
The athletes, Bianca Williams, 26, and Ricardo dos Santos, 25, soon found themselves surrounded by officers before being hustled from their vehicle and placed in handcuffs as the police searched the car.
Ms. Williams, a European and Commonwealth gold medalist in the 4×100-meter relay, accused the London Metropolitan Police of racial profiling, saying her family was targeted because they are Black and drive an expensive car.
The police said in a statement that they had pulled over the car because officers “witnessed a vehicle with blacked-out windows that was driving suspiciously, including driving on the wrong side of the road.”
The events, some of which were captured on shaky cellphone video and posted on social media, have renewed debate over police tactics in England at a moment of heightened awareness over institutional racism.
In a series of interviews with British news outlets over the past three days, Ms. Williams disputed the police account, noting that she and her partner were driving on a single-lane road and were looking for a safe place to pull over. (It is common practice in Britain for drivers to park on either side of a residential street.)
Ms. Williams said that the aggressiveness of the officers so unnerved her that she was scared to get out of the car.
“My partner got dragged out of the car, they handcuffed him straight away and pinned him up against the wall,” Ms. Williams told the BBC. “I didn’t want to be separated from my 3-month-old son, and they then put me in handcuffs straight away too.”
They were kept cuffed for about 45 minutes as the police searched the car, then were eventually released.
“It’s a really sad world that we live in and if it’s not one Black man, it’s another Black man,” Ms. Williams said. “My heart just hurts.”
A video of a brief part of the encounter was posted on Twitter by Linford Christie, an Olympic gold medalist who trained both Ms. Williams and Mr. Dos Santos, a Portuguese sprinter.
“Racist police aren’t just in America,” he wrote in a post that quickly went viral.
In the video, a woman can be heard pleading with officers that her child was in the car and that she did not want to be separated from him. In another video clip of the encounter, a female officer can be heard telling the woman to calm down and that no one wanted to harm her or her child.
The police said in a statement that they had reviewed “footage from social media, and the body-worn video of the officers, and are satisfied that there is no concern around the officers’ conduct.”
The local police commander in central-west London, Helen Harper, said in a statement that the police wanted to speak to the couple to better understand their concerns.
“We want to listen to, and speak with, those who raise concerns, to understand more about the issues raised and what more we can do to explain police actions,” Ms. Harper said. “Where we could have interacted in a better way, we need to consider what we should have done differently and take on that learning for the future.”
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, told LBC radio that it was hard to see what justification there could have been for handcuffing the couple.
“I don’t know what led to the stop in the first place,” he said. “But what I do know is that if I was a senior officer looking at that video footage, I would feel uncomfortable about the way that it was dealt with.”
The British police have long employed “stop and search” tactics, long the subject of often bitter debate. Stops reached a peak in 2009, when the police searched about 1.5 million people or vehicles based on “reasonable grounds” of suspicion of possession of illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property or something that could be used to commit a crime.
After dropping steadily for years, the stops increased 50 percent in London during the coronavirus lockdown, with 30,608 stops this past April compared to 20,981 over the same period in 2019.
In June, as protests over the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis spread around the world, many Britons pointed to the disproportionate number of searches in areas with large Black, Asian and minority ethnic populations as evidence of a systemic problem.
According to official statistics, Black people are 10 times as likely to be stopped and searched than white people are.