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The troubling case of Robyn Williams

It took just 90 minutes for the Court of Appeal to slam the door shut on Robyn Williams’s chance of clearing her name.

The former Metropolitan Police officer had brought a legal challenge against her conviction for possessing an indecent image.

Her trial, at the Old Bailey in 2019, heard that Williams’s sister had sent her, unsolicited, a 54-second video of a young girl being sexually abused. The Prosecution said Williams had seen an image from the video on her mobile phone and discussed it with her sister but failed to report it.

Williams’s defence was that she hadn’t seen the child abuse image, hadn’t discussed the video and didn’t know it was on her phone. The Prosecution claimed that was a “lie”. The jury chose the Prosecution’s version of events over hers. She was sentenced to complete 200 hours’ unpaid work and ordered to register as a sex offender (even though it was accepted by all sides that there was no sexual motivation involved).

Williams lodged an appeal. A judge considering the case 'on the papers' rejected it, prompting her to request an oral hearing. But a panel of three judges, led by Dame Victoria Sharp, was similarly unconvinced. It means the 56 year old’s conviction is safe and will stand. Appeals brought on behalf of her sister and her sister’s partner also failed. The only route now to overturning Williams’s conviction is via the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). For that, she will need to uncover new evidence or find legal flaws in the proceedings; less than 2% of cases considered by the CCRC lead to a successful appeal.

The court ruling also substantially diminishes any prospect Williams has of returning to the police service, for which she’d worked for 36 years. Last March, following her conviction, a Metropolitan Police misconduct panel sacked her, declaring she had demonstrated a “lack of truthfulness and judgment”. The Police Appeals Tribunal will consider the panel’s decision but it is hard to see it being reversed.

For Williams, her conviction was devastating, bringing a humiliating end to a stellar career, the high point of which came in 2003 when she was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal, the most prestigious honour in policing.

It was also a terrible blow to the police service, not least because Williams had been a role model for black women officers, rising through the ranks, as few other ethnic minority police have done, to the position of temporary chief superintendent. The most recent figures show that across England and Wales there are only four black chief superintendents out of 307.

But if the legal battle is all but over, the controversy about the case is not. It continues to puzzle, anger and trouble many people. Their concerns principally revolve around this question: if Robyn Williams was white, would she have been dealt with in the same way?

The Metropolitan Black Police Association (MBPA), which has been supporting Williams, says not. It has argued that she was unfairly targeted because of her colour.

“There are guidelines that allow for discretion, however Robyn was not afforded this privilege from start to finish of the process,” the MBPA said in a statement after her dismissal. It said it would have been more appropriate to have handled the case through the police’s internal misconduct procedures rather than launch criminal proceedings.

Detective Sergeant Janet Hills, Chair of the MBPA, went further, alleging there’d been a “witch-hunt” against Williams, though she acknowledged she didn’t have “any evidence to support that there was a person that was out to get her”. Hills said she’d asked Scotland Yard to review the case before it came to trial because she felt a prosecution was disproportionate.

The retired Met commander, Victor Olisa, a highly-respected figure in policing, also felt that Williams would not have ended up at the Old Bailey had she been a white officer. He was driven to that conclusion by his experience of seeing the way other officers had been dealt with but, like Hills, couldn’t prove that racism had played a part.

"I don’t have any dutiful evidence I can give to you,” he told me.

I’d interviewed Olisa and Hills for a Radio 4 documentary about racism in the police, which was broadcast last summer. The "File on 4" programme featured clear-cut examples of ethnic minority officers being racially discriminated against. Robyn Williams’s case, however, was far from clear-cut and the show’s editor, producer and I debated about whether or not we should include it.

In the end we decided the Williams case should be covered in the programme precisely because it wasn’t a clear-cut case of racism. Sometimes racism isn’t clear - it is subtly embedded in organisations and processes.

That was highlighted in 2019 in a landmark report by the National Police Chiefs’ Council. It examined why ethnic minority officers were more likely than their white counterparts to have internal complaints against them escalated. The report found that police supervisors either didn’t have the knowledge to deal appropriately with such complaints or had a “fear of being called racist”, so tended to refer them to police professional standards departments (PSDs). But when PSDs assessed the severity of such cases, the study said “cultural factors, guidance and working practices are inconsistently applied or considered”. For ethnic minority officers, it was a “postcode lottery”.

Scotland Yard has denied that racial bias affected its decision-making in the Williams case, but Hills and Olisa, among others, strongly believe that racism was involved even if they can’t demonstrate it. What is clear, however, is that the case has polarised opinion and fuelled mistrust among some black officers in the police misconduct system, in which ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented.

At her trial, the Prosecution presented a compelling case against Robyn Williams, saying that at its "heart" was the “lie” she told about the child abuse video. When I later interviewed the prosecuting barrister, Richard Wright QC, he said it was “entirely appropriate” for Williams to have been charged, saying she was the only one of the 17 people who’d been sent the video not to delete it or report it.

But before the prosecution juggernaut got going was there a moment when common-sense could have prevailed? Might a senior officer have intervened to ensure the case was handled internally? Would the force have felt more confident in adopting a lighter-touch approach with a white officer? As Robyn Williams faces up to the shattering consequences of her actions, so the Metropolitan Police must answer those questions and satisfy itself that its processes were completely fair and proportionate.

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