PETRONELLA WYATT relives her terrifying ordeal at the hands of the Met

Arrested, handcuffed and held for six hours after my dementia stricken mother accused me of trying to kill her: For the first time, PETRONELLA WYATT relives her terrifying ordeal at the hands of the Met

One policeman was holding me down. His eyes were egg-like and his skin fish-belly pale. His stare had the menace of a hitman and his hands were all over me. He had two colleagues with him: one male, one female. It was the female who kicked me in the back.

I screamed and rolled over. I’d never been in trouble with the law, in my privately educated, polite little life. But, with the suddenness of a striking adder, a police officer was now trying to handcuff me.

My wrists are narrow and my hands slipped through the cuffs like water, which seemed to make the officer angry. ‘Bloody b***h keeps getting out of them,’ he said.

He and his colleagues began to drag me down the stairs. My head hit the bannisters repeatedly, but my yelps of pain didn’t move them.

I was whimpering like an animal, as though nature had exerted some atavistic pull. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was just the beginning of six hours of hell for me.

Cherished memory: Petronella with her mother Lady Wyatt

It is only now that I am able to speak of it at all, reminded of my nightmare when I read, last week, about a female protester, Dania Al-Obeid, who is suing the Metropolitan Police after she was handcuffed, arrested and charged with breaching Covid restrictions when she attended the vigil in South London for murdered Sarah Everard in March 2021.

For years after my encounter with the Metropolitan Police, I suffered panic attacks and night terrors. If I saw a police officer, the tremors began again, to be stilled only by alcohol and tranquillisers prescribed by my doctor.

It was my beloved, 87-year-old mother’s illness that started my journey to hell and back. She had early onset dementia which was worsening every day and, at the time, we were living together in North London.

There were days when she suffered from paranoia and failed to recognise me; and others when she became another person, wild and staring, convinced I intended to attack her.

On that particular evening in April 2015, I had returned home to find the house in disarray. My mother was in her room, surrounded by open suitcases with clothes streaming out.

She turned at the sound of my tread. I had learned to look out for warning signs and her cello contralto voice was pitched unusually high. She regarded me blankly, before screaming: ‘Who are you? Why have you stolen my things?’

To reason with dementia patients is futile, they have a logic of their own. Confronted by my entreaties, my mother was as inert as if she were deaf. She threatened to call the police. Almost at breaking point, I snapped back the two words I would regret: ‘Do that!’

I was dozing on my bed when the police arrived. My mother had not only called them, but had let them in. Within minutes they were in my room, telling me I was under arrest.

‘For what?’ I asked stupidly. They wouldn’t say. I was told, sharply: ‘Come with us.’

‘Why?’ I inquired. Then the taller of the male officers spoke: ‘We’ve had a complaint. Your mother says you are violent and are attempting to kill her.’

It is odd how we react in times of extreme stress. I laughed, partly with relief. I would explain everything and they would go away, yet my laughter enraged them. ‘So you think it’s funny?’ one of them asked.

To my astonishment, the policewoman began examining my wardrobe. I asked if she wanted to try anything on. ‘Those must be expensive clothes,’ she remarked.

‘I’m a journalist — I worked for them,’ I told her, angrily.

It was my beloved, 87-year-old mother’s illness that started my journey to hell and back. She had early onset dementia which was worsening every day and, at the time, we were living together in North London

One of the male officers returned to the subject of my mother. Patiently and reasonably, I explained that she had early onset dementia. I recounted how I had come home to find her agitated and aggressive.

I was sitting on my bed now, barefoot. They didn’t seem to be listening to me and I began to gabble.

‘You see, she has these fits of paranoia, thinks people are trying to kill her. It’s a symptom of dementia.’ I gasped for breath. ‘It’s awful. Sometimes I can’t cope. Help me.’

But help would not be forthcoming. I listened, stunned, as I was told I would be taken to a police station and questioned over an allegation that I’d assaulted my own mother.

I began to sob, agonised sobs that hurt so much I thought my ribs had broken. I lay on my bed in a foetal position, at which point they accused me of resisting arrest — and then it got nasty.

Handcuffs appeared as one officer twisted my arms. There was a crack and I remember wondering if he had dislocated my shoulder.

I had seldom seen a policeman on our local beat and I wondered, silently, why not one, but three officers were needed to subdue a defenceless woman in her own home.

I said I had to speak to my mother, she needed her heart medication, but my plea was dismissed: ‘You’re not speaking to her at all!’

All three officers dragged me out of the house, shoeless, holding me at either end like a sack. I was pushed into the back of a police van, the sort with grilles and a cage that they use for violent criminals, not law-abiding, middle-class women like me.

They wouldn’t tell me where we were going, I wasn’t even allowed to speak. When I cried, I was told to ‘shut up’.

It was getting dark. I looked at my watch. We had been travelling for 25 minutes, but I had no idea in which direction. As I wondered whether the journey would ever end, the van pulled up and I was taken through a back way into what I now know was Charing Cross police station.

My fingerprints were taken and a swab of my DNA. They took my mobile phone, my watch and my jewellery. I was asked if I wanted a lawyer. ‘I haven’t done anything — why would I want a lawyer?’ I asked. Then I was led to a cell.

It was terribly cramped, about 10 x 4 ft, with no natural light. There was no bed, just a stone ledge.

By the door was a rudimentary toilet, without a seat. A dirty blanket lay on the floor and the cell smelled of vomit and disinfectant. Later, I found out, to my mordant amusement, that they call them ‘custody suites’. The windowless, steel door of my ‘suite’ was slammed behind me.

I asked if I could see a superior officer and was told someone would take my statement — but not when. It would be a long wait.

I begged them to leave the door ajar as I suffer from claustrophobia, but this, too, was denied. It would be too dangerous, I was informed, as there would be drunks and vagrants coming in. I could already hear someone shouting in another cell, screams that got louder and became howls as I grew palpably afraid.

One officer appeared to have fun tormenting me. I would bang on the door begging for a glass of water and she would tell me she was busy and I’d have to wait. ‘How long?’

‘I don’t know, posh girl,’ she said, imitating my accent.

‘Please,’ I implored, ‘I haven’t done anything.’ Her reply was chilling: ‘That’s what they all say.’

Meanwhile, my frail, sick mother was at home, alone. Her cognition would have returned to some extent, as it always did, and she would be frantic with worry. I knew she would remember nothing of the police.

‘Please let me call my mother,’ I begged. ‘No.’ She was to be made a victim, too, it seemed.

How had this happened? I started to think back to my childhood, and how fond I’d been of our local policeman, Constable Simms. He had eyebrows like the beating wings of an eagle and loved reading. We would talk about Ivanhoe and Camelot, and he’d tell me that the police were modern-day knights.

I must have been 12 when Constable Simms was part of my life. His chivalrous knights were thin on the ground now.

It did not occur to me that night, but what has become so shockingly apparent is that the Metropolitan Police has a ‘woman problem’. It is a problem that has existed for decades in the covert world of policing but, recently, it has been brought out into the ugly light of day, by some truly shocking, high-profile cases. Following the public outcry over Sarah Everard’s abduction, rape and murder, at the hands of serving Metropolitan officer, Wayne Couzens, disturbing evidence of police misogyny began to emerge.

So poor is the reputation of the force that, last month, the head teacher of an independent girls’ school in South London told her pupils they should not ‘allow a lone policeman to approach you at any time’.

Fionnuala Kennedy, of Wimbledon High School, issued her grim indictment after the conviction of Met Police Officer David Carrick for 49 incidents of sexual assault, including 24 counts of rape.

I hadn’t been raped or seriously assaulted, but, as a frightened, innocent woman, crouching on that concrete ledge in my locked cell for hour after hour that night, I certainly felt very let down.

Heavy handed: A protester at the Sarah Everard vigil is held down by male police officers

Still no one would see me or even tell me what I was formally accused of. I banged on the door again. There was a blond male officer on duty who seemed kinder. He smelt of soap and asked me if I wanted a book to read.

My wait would be long, he warned, as it was 9pm and very busy. He opened the door. ‘Have you eaten?’ he asked.

Not since lunch. He gave me half of his own sandwich and a book. I took both gratefully and pulled the dirty blanket around me.

The book was a Mills & Boon title about a young nurse who falls in love with a dashing surgeon. I smiled at the incongruity.

Another hour passed, then another. I had ceased to care.

Finally the door opened and I was told that an inspector would see me. I was led into a room with recording machines.

The inspector was middle-aged, with darkish hair. I knew better than to antagonise him, so I made ridiculously polite conversation about the weather.

He then asked for ‘my side’ of the story. I told him about my mother’s dementia and her resulting paranoia and fantasies. He looked at me hard and then nodded. He believed me. I began to cry again.

‘I’m sorry,’ he explained, ‘but we have to investigate every charge, no matter how far-fetched it may seem. It’s our job.’

Was it over? Could I go? My hopes were dashed. ‘Not yet. I have to wait for someone to sign this off.’ So back I went back to my cell. I lost track of time . . .

Finally, the door opened again. I was led back to the desk and my belongings were returned. I was not to be charged. I could go.

Suddenly, everyone was all solicitude. I refused an offer to find me a taxi, took my stuff and ran out into the streets.

Clearly, I was in the West End, but it was dark. I must have been a strange sight with no shoes, trying to hail a taxi. Someone took my fare and dropped me home.

When I returned, I found my mother crying: ‘Where have you been? I thought you were dead.’

Of course, she remembered nothing. It was now after 11pm. The whole thing had started at 5pm. More than six hours. I needed a drink — I’ve never drunk a bottle of wine so quickly. Then the shaking began, and the hysteria. Both would be protracted. When people are in a position of trust and we regard them as our protectors, being confronted with the inverse breaks your inner compass.

After a sleepless night, I told friends what had happened. I was advised to make a complaint.

Eventually, weeks later, a policeman called to apologise, although he failed to acknowledge the trauma that had been inflicted upon me.

When approached for comment last week, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police, said: ‘At around 16:00hrs on April 6, 2015, police were called to a residential address in London, after it was alleged that an elderly woman had been assaulted. Officers attended. A woman known to her was arrested and taken into custody. She was later released with no further action.’

My mother is now living in specialist respite home, but I hope to have her back with me soon. In robbing my mother of her memory, the gods may have been kinder to her than to me.

I remember a Henry Fonda film called Let Us Live. Fonda plays a cheerful, trusting Joe accused of a crime he didn’t commit.

Slowly, his faith in the police begins to erode. When he is released, after his girlfriend proves his innocence, he is a bitter man.

I can’t say I am bitter at life, but I am bitter at the police. The law doesn’t like to admit it’s wrong.

When I think of my six hours at its hands, I am still tempted to reach for the bottle. And I’m sorry to say that when I see a lone policeman at night, I break into a run.

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