Gasps as jury finds police officer guilty of dangerous driving

Sarah de Meulemeester with Ian Hopkins

A Greater Manchester Police officer has been found guilty of seriously injuring a 15 year old schoolboy whilst driving dangerously in response to a 999 call.

Khia Whitehead was struck by a police vehicle driven by Police Constable Sarah De Meulemeester in Garner Lane, Stockport at around 9.30pm on 26th December, 2020.

Khia, a promising junior footballer at the time, suffered life-changing injuries and remains unable to communicate.

PC De Meulemeester, 26, (pictured above with former GMP chief constable, Ian Hopkins) of Chinley, Derbyshire will be sentenced at Liverpool Crown Court on on 19th May, 2023.

Gasps, tears and hugs were heard and seen in the public gallery as the jury’s verdict was read out. They had deliberated for less than three hours before finding the officer guilty. The defendant had previously admitted careless driving but denied the offence of which she was convicted. Standing in the dock, she showed no reaction when the jury foreman announced the verdict.

The court heard that the GMP officer was, at the time of the collision, responding to a 999 report of a domestic incident involving a man with a knife who was threatening his mother.

An investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) found PC De Meulemeester had reached speeds of 61mph (98km/h) in an area where the speed limit was 30mph.

As a basic level police driver, PC De Meulemeester was obligated to observe all speed limits and not entitled to use either the blue lights fitted to her police vehicle or the statutory exemptions available to advanced police drivers qualified after stringent training.

The police watchdog reported that the convicted officer’s vehicle was one of three driving in convoy, all having left Cheadle Heath police station at the same time,

As information about the alleged knife incident was broadcast on police airwaves en route, a response officer, who was trained and authorised to drive above speed limits, overtook her and switched on the vehicle’s blue warning lights.

Speed data obtained from PC De Meulemeester’s liveried Peugeot 308 car showed that she initially slowed down slightly to allow her response colleague to overtake, but then increased her own vehicle’s speed.

She initially told investigators that she had been travelling at normal road speed and declined to answer any further questions in interview about her driving whilst responding to the incident. It had been a dark, rainy December night and visibility was reduced. The vehicle she was driving was travelling at 42mph when the collision occurred.

On Garners Lane, De Meulemeester overtook a car belonging to a member of the public’, travelling on the wrong side of a traffic island and ignoring a keep left sign to do so, and that was where she struck Khia Whitehead as he was crossing the road.

The lead car in the three car police convoy had passed Khia as he stood on the hatched area of a traffic island with a friend, jurors were told. He had been ‘distracted’ by the first police car, with blue lights, going past and was watching that vehicle, therefore not realising other cars were following on the wrong side of the road.

When giving evidence, PC De Meulemeester told the court: “There’s no words that can ever begin to say how sorry I am, how sorry I am this happened. There’s nothing that can make it right.”

Sarah De Meulemeester was convicted of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. Judge David Aubrey KC told PC De Meulemeester that he would adjourn sentencing to enable a pre-sentence report to be prepared. He told her an immediate prison sentence could not be ruled out and it was likely she faced a lengthy driving ban:

“You will be granted bail, however all options including immediate custody remain open to the court and at the forefront of my mind has to be in accordance with legal principles such as sentencing, not withstanding your impeccable character, but I will consider all matters on 19th May”.

The judge praised family members, friends and supporters for their “impeccable behaviour” during the week-long trial.

Boxer Tyson Fury, ex-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, and former players Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs were among those who sent video messages of support as Rhia lay in a coma in hospital. The teenager who suffered ‘catastrophic injuries’ underwent three emergency brain operations after the collision and doctors told his family he would never walk again. He is still being treated at a rehabilitation centre in Sheffield and will need 24/7 care for the rest of his life, the court heard.

The IOPC has also reported that PC De Meulemeester and another colleague, PC Boris Mcdohl, driver of the the third vehicle in the police convoy will face a GMP misconduct hearing over their driving. PC Mcdohl is alleged to have been driving too close to the vehicle in front and narrowly avoided colliding with the vehicle and the badly injured boy. A third officer was cleared of any wrongdoing.

After the conviction, IOPC Regional Director Catherine Bates said:

“This incident has had a catastrophic effect on the lives of Khia and his family and the last few years will have been incredibly difficult for them.

“That PC De Meulemeester was responding to an emergency does not excuse the dangerous actions that have irrevocably changed the life of Khia, who was simply trying to cross the road.

“Her conviction will not erase the hardship he and his family have endured, and will continue to endure, but our independent investigation has ensured the officer responsible has been held accountable for her actions.”

In a statement, the force said:

“Greater Manchester Police acknowledges the verdict from today and we will now consider the progression of disciplinary proceedings following the IOPC’s investigation, its conclusion and the verdict of the criminal case.”

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Page last updated Saturday 22nd April, 2023 at 0850hrs

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Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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