PSNI 'treated widow like criminal': 56-year-old wrongfully arrested for shoplifting wins £5,000 in damages
A widow has told how she was treated like a hardened criminal after being wrongly accused of shoplifting from Victoria Square.
Helen Curlett (56) was arrested, fingerprinted and placed in a cell in of a case of mistaken identity.
Yet despite a harrowing ordeal spanning 16 months, she has yet to receive an apology from the PSNI.
Earlier this week, a judge threw out an appeal from the PSNI over a £5,000 compensation award it had been ordered to pay for her wrongful arrest and detention.
Mrs Curlett said all she wanted was someone to say sorry. "I didn't go down this route for compensation - I just wanted an apology from them," she added.
The widow, who has no criminal record, was arrested in February last year, three months after designer goods were stolen.
Staff thought she was the same woman who had been captured on CCTV committing the crime because of a similar hairstyle and the fact she was wearing glasses.
Afterwards, Mrs Curlett, from Ballyclare, Co Antrim, was arrested at her home and held for several hours before being released without charge.
"I was put through the whole process - frisked down, DNA'd, fingerprinted, photographed, seen by a police doctor, put in a cell - the whole palaver until the duty solicitor arrived," she said."I was taken away from my house at about 9.20am that morning and I think it was maybe 4.30pm before I left the police station. They put me through the whole process as if I was a hardened criminal."
Mrs Curlett sued for wrongful arrest and unlawful detention, and earlier this year Belfast County Court upheld her claim, ordering the PSNI to pay £5,000.
Appealing the ruling, lawyers argued that awarding compensation would hinder the PSNI's ability to arrest suspects.
But a senior judge rejected the challenge, pointing out that officers had failed to consider alternative options such as asking Mrs Curlett to attend an interview.
Mrs Curlett said the PSNI had fought hard to avoid the payout. "They just pushed me and pushed me to the bitter end," she added.
"They seemed to be determined to prove that the way they had dealt with the case was correct, more so than the fact that they already knew I was innocent after the arrest.
"They realised they had got the wrong lady, and they knew I was innocent. They seemed to be fighting me on the fact that the way they had done everything was correct, when in fact it wasn't.
"It all boiled down to a hairstyle and a pair of glasses. The judge and numerous people have confirmed there are lots of people who have a similar hairstyle to myself. It could have been any one of them.
"But as soon as [the officer] saw me with this hairstyle and glasses, she assumed she had got the shoplifter and just arrested me."
The widow Curlett is now looking to put the matter behind her.
"It has been a very traumatic experience for me," she said."I'm just now at the stage where I need closure on it, and I need to put it all behind me and try to get over this because it has just been an horrendous period for me.
"All I want is an apology, but I haven't got one."
The Police Ombudsman conducted an investigation into the original complaint, but no evidence of misconduct was identified and no recommendations were made for the police.
A spokesman for the PSNI said last night: "The Police Service of Northern Ireland felt the circumstances of this claim were appropriate for a contest. However, we fully respect the decision of the court."