A nurse convicted of obstructing police by refusing to get out of her car during a stop and search because she was scared is calling for greater accountability over the powers after successfully clearing her name.
Neomi Bennett, 47, says she was ‘petrified’ when her car was suddenly ‘surrounded’ by officers as she dropped a friend home in Wandsworth, southwest London, in April last year.
She was arrested after failing to comply with repeated demands to step out onto the pavement so it could be searched and then held in a police cell for 19 hours despite nothing illegal being found inside.
The mother-of-three said her subsequent conviction was ‘devastating’. But it was finally overturned last month after the CPS decided not to challenge her appeal in light of a medical report setting out how the incident triggered her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although ‘pleased’ at finally getting the right outcome, she says the episode has had a ‘huge impact’ on her life.
Ms Bennett, who returned to the frontline to help the NHS in the fight against coronavirus while battling to clear her name, was awarded a British Empire Medal by the Queen and has been invited to Downing Street in recognition of her work designing a life-saving product to help prevent deep vein thrombosis.
She started a successful business manufacturing Neo-slips – a low-friction pouch which aids the application of compression socks after an operation.
But that enterprise ground to a halt and was ‘almost strangled’ when she had to fund the £10,000 legal challenge.
She also lamented the ‘trauma it has caused my family’, describing how she now has CCTV in her car ‘because this is not the first time this has happened’.
The incident occurred shortly after midnight on April 4, 2019.
Just as she and her passenger were finished chatting at the roadside and he was about to leave, the car was ‘surrounded by police officers’.
One of the officers said he was concerned her front windows were illegally tinted before going on to explain she was being detained for the purposes of a search.
When she failed to emerge from the vehicle after 23 requests to do so the officers said she was obstructing that search and would be arrested.
Ms Bennett said: ‘I was petrified. I was so scared. I think the approach was what set off fear, because they didn’t pull up beside my car. They did a hard stop. I thought it was a hold up.’
In body-worn footage of the incident Ms Bennett can be heard telling the officers: ‘I’m scared.’
She later adds: ‘I’m scared you’re going to hurt me because you keep hurting a lot of black people. I’m intimidated. You’re stopping me for no reason.’
In a medical letter a consultant psychiatrist says Ms Bennett has been diagnosed with PTSD stemming from a serious flat fire which, in the expert’s view, rendered her ‘unable to comply with police instructions’ due to a combination of anxiety and panic attacks as well as traumatic flashbacks.
Documents also proved the tints were legal.
Speaking to The Guardian, her barrister AnnTayo said: ‘This is how we treat our NHS. She’s done so well, she’s come up with great ideas that are helping people to save lives but somebody who doesn’t know anything about her background has chosen to treat her in a negative manner simply because of the colour of her skin.’
Looking back on the incident, Ms Bennett said: ‘I’ve come to realise it’s not just about race. It’s also about classes of people as well.
‘There’s certain people I feel that with the police we’ve got to be very careful and mindful that we are disproportionately [targeted].
‘I’m sitting in my own car minding my business. I’m about to go home ready for work the next day. I’m a nurse, they know that I wanted to go home. I’m a few minutes from my house and they carted me off to Kingston and locked me up.
‘I can’t really understand the logic in that even now. I think there needs to be some kind of accountability for what I experienced.’
Katrina Ffrench, chief executive of police accountability charity StopWatch, described the conduct of officers that night as ‘disgraceful’.
She said: ‘StopWatch is elated to know that Neomi has finally been acquitted.
‘The police conduct that night was disgraceful. It is important that people challenge unfair policing and do not suffer in silence.
‘StopWatch is on hand to provide support.’
A Met Police spokesperson said the force is ‘aware of the decision by the CPS not to pursue the appeal hearing’ and confirmed that ‘the south west basic command unit professional standards team is currently assessing a complaint in relation to this incident’.
‘Due to the complaint, we cannot go into any more detail at this time,’ they said.
However, a unit commander ‘has recently been in contact with Ms Bennett and has put her in touch with the local Independent Advisory Group (IAG) chair to discuss her experiences with police’, they added.