Chief inspector apologises to innocent Hitchin family left traumatised by armed police raid

PUBLISHED: 18:17 25 August 2017 | UPDATED: 18:19 25 August 2017

North Herts Chief Inspector Julie Wheatley in her office in Hitchin. Picture: JP Asher

North Herts Chief Inspector Julie Wheatley in her office in Hitchin. Picture: JP Asher

Archant

North Hertfordshire’s chief inspector has apologised to a traumatised Hitchin family whose home was raided by armed police after an inaccurate firearms report.

Chief Inspector Julie Wheatley visited Sukhi Rayat and his family at their home in Fishponds Road yesterday – a day after a tyre puncture led to officers storming the address with rifles and dogs – and apologised in person for disrespect shown to a room containing Sikh religious items and texts.

The Rayats had asked police not to enter this room while wearing shoes, but bootprints were clearly visible afterwards.

Care service manager Mr Rayat, 47, and his 17-year-old son Harkeert were both pushed against the wall of their house and handcuffed during the raid shortly after 12 noon on Wednesday – with the rest of the family, including 75-year-old Krishna Rayat, searched outside in full view of passers-by.

Speaking to the Comet today at Hitchin Police Station, barely 100 yards from the Rayat house, Ch Insp Wheatley said she felt some empathy with the family – but that her officers had to take reports seriously to keep the public safe.

“This is a well-respected family in the community, and there was no wrong-doing at all on their behalf,” she said.

“I just think it’s a very difficult balance we have to make, because we have to make sure we’re keeping everyone safe.

“I have some empathy with this family. I felt awful that the elderly lady was searched. No-one asked me or told me to go and see them – that was my first response, I immediately said I would go and see them.

“But you can imagine, in the current climate – we’ve just had the awful events in Barcelona – if we get reports like this involving firearms, we’re duty-bound to act. And I think the public would be up in arms if we didn’t.

“We’ve got to manage the risk and the threat there could be to public safety, and that’s our main concern. I think I speak for all the public when I say we cannot take any risks.”

Hitchin care service manager Sukhi Rayat with his mother Krishna Rayat, 75, and his children Manmeet Kaur, 20, and Harkeert Rayat, 17. Picture: JP AsherHitchin care service manager Sukhi Rayat with his mother Krishna Rayat, 75, and his children Manmeet Kaur, 20, and Harkeert Rayat, 17. Picture: JP Asher

Ch Insp Wheatley said the raid had been prompted by a call from a delivery driver following Mr Rayat’s car into Hitchin town centre, who said he could see someone holding what appeared to be a pistol and firing at passers-by.

She said: “We got called by a member of the public who was following a vehicle in Bancroft.

“That person said he had just seen an orange BMW with two males of Asian appearance in it, and one of them appeared to have a firearm that he was pointing at members of the public.

“He said the vehicle had a flat tyre and that he had heard what he would describe as a firearm being discharged.

“Police deal with these situations a lot, sadly, and all too often it turns out to be true.”

The chief inspector said that this report had triggered a “dynamic firearms response”, with armed officers rushing up from their base at Luton Airport to tackle the perceived threat.

“The vehicle was quickly located at the address near the corner of Bunyan Road and Fishponds Road,” she said.

“It did have a flat tyre, so we were sure this was the one – but there was only one male in the car, and we had been told two.

“So firearms officers attended, and they have to act very, very quickly. What they have to do after this sort of report is clear the house – get everyone out and make it safe – and that’s just what they did. They went through like you’d see on TV – ‘clear, clear, clear’.”

The flat tyre on Sukhi Rayat's orange BMW X1 that led to the whole ordeal. Picture: JP AsherThe flat tyre on Sukhi Rayat's orange BMW X1 that led to the whole ordeal. Picture: JP Asher

The chief inspector said it had quickly become apparent that there was no firearm either in the car, in the possession of any of the family, or in the house.

She said the officers then called back the person who had made the report – who said it may have been a “pop” rather than a bang he heard, and that it could have been an imitation firearm he had seen.

Ch Insp Wheatley said: “That’s the only bit of the story that changed.”

One of the main grievances of the Rayat family had concerned the officers’ treatment of a room containing Sikh religious items and texts, which Ch Insp Wheatley said was on the top floor.

The chief inspector said she had spoken to the armed officers, and that none of them remembered being asked not to enter that room without shoes on.

She said: “One officer went in and just looked around the corner – because he has to. That’s a proportional response in my view.”

Told that every member of the Rayat family insisted that they had asked the officers to take off their shoes, the chief inspector suggested that they may not have been speaking to the same officers who conducted the search.

She added: “I’m absolutely not disputing that they said that – they probably did – but the firearms officers have a job to do and they need to make sure the house is clear very, very quickly. I’ve spoken to the officer and he said he was as respectful as possible and made sure it was only him who went into that room, straight in and then straight out again.

“We would never, ever offend anyone’s religious sensibilities. Never. If we have, then on behalf of this organisation, I apologise.”

Hitchin care service manager Sukhi Rayat with his mother Krishna Rayat, 75, and his children Manmeet Kaur, 20, and Harkeert Rayat, 17. Picture: JP AsherHitchin care service manager Sukhi Rayat with his mother Krishna Rayat, 75, and his children Manmeet Kaur, 20, and Harkeert Rayat, 17. Picture: JP Asher

Asked how the family had responded to her visit, she said: “I think they were embarrassed and I think they were upset by what they saw as police intrusion into their privacy and their religion. But I think they appreciated me going to see them.

“We at the police are always keen to learn. We’re trained about different cultural issues and religions, but it’s all different when you’re in a firearms quick-time operation.”

Mr Rayat told the Comet this afternoon that his 75-year-old mother had not slept since the raid, and that they intended to take the matter further.

He said: “She came around with another officer and said she wanted to have a chat. We were very vocal and upfront when we told her how sad and disappointed we are with how the police handled the situation.

“The main reason is that the report changed, but their actions didn’t. They kept that anti-terror kind of attitude going all the way through. I find that unacceptable.

“We made our feelings known about the disrespect with the shoes. I asked what sort of training they go through – that should be basic. You should understand people’s religious beliefs.”

Mr Rayat added: “We’re tolerant people and we understand where the chief inspector’s coming from, but filing a complaint is not going to take away the torment and the traumatic experiences we’ve suffered as a result of this.

“My mother is 75, and she hasn’t slept since – it’s the third day now.

“That’s just the start of how much trauma this has caused us.”

He added: “The Sikh community has rallied around us completely. Even as we speak, we’ve got people turning up in our living room to express their grief.

“We’ve had all of our neighbours give us loads of support – offering to help us in any way they can. We’re grateful for everyone’s support, because our reputation really has been damaged by this.

“The officer’s been here and we understand that, but we will be taking this further.

“This hasn’t just hurt us, it’s hurt the whole community.”

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