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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

Why the Met Police is determined to have its day in court...

The extraordinary case of Metropolitan police officer Robyn Williams is heading back to court, I've discovered.

Scotland Yard has begun legal proceedings to sack the Superintendent for a second time - after she successfully appealed against her dismissal for "discreditable conduct".

It raises the prospect of a further lengthy and bitter courtroom battle between one of Britain's most senior Black policewomen and a force striving to bolster confidence in policing among ethnic minority communities.

In November 2019, Williams was convicted at the Old Bailey of possession of an indecent image - a 54-second child abuse video sent via WhatsApp to her smartphone, unsolicited, by her sister.

The Met Superintendent was ordered to complete 200 hours' unpaid work and register for five years as a sex offender, even though the judge accepted there'd been no sexual motive. Her conviction was later upheld by the Court of Appeal.

In March 2020, Williams's 36-year police career appeared to be over when she was sacked following an internal disciplinary hearing; it found that her actions had amounted to "gross misconduct" which "threatened" public confidence and the reputation of the police service.

However, Williams took her case to the Police Appeals Tribunal - and won. "I am therefore delighted to be able to return to the work I love, serving our communities within London," she said.

The full details of the ruling, in June, have now been disclosed and they do not make comfortable reading for Scotland Yard or Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball, the Presiding Officer (PO) at the hearing.

The Tribunal panel's initial task was to examine the case for sacking Williams. But within a few paragraphs the arguments advanced by Ball are ruthlessly dismantled. "Our first observation is that the general reasoning within the PO’s decision is thin. Unfortunately we cannot be sure that she has taken into account important factors where she has not specifically mentioned them," it said.

The panel, comprising employment lawyer Rachel Crasnow QC, South Wales Police Assistant Chief Constable Mark Travis and anti-corruption consultant and former police officer Piers Westlake, said Ball had given "too much weight" to a comment by the trial judge about Williams's dishonesty and "inadequate notice" in many character testimonials that her dismissal could damage the force’s reputation.

It suggested Ball, the PO, had made assumptions about how the public would respond to Williams's conviction without any supporting evidence.

"We are concerned that the PO makes findings about the general public’s supposed reaction to the fact of the conviction per se. We note the public are expected to be informed about the context of the conviction, so the bare fact of it is not a sufficient negative from which to decide that unnamed stakeholders would expect a dismissal," the panel said.

"The PO does not identify why unnamed stakeholders - even when in possession of all facts -would remain of the view that continued employment was untenable. Related to this is the fact that the {Met Police} provided no evidence that the retention of {Williams} during a two-year period from the time of her arrest, including her retention post-conviction once she was placed upon the Sex Offenders Register, had resulted in a loss of public confidence.

"In contrast, the references before us included the assertion that despite the conviction Supt Williams still held the trust and confidence of the community," the Tribunal judgment added.

In a highly critical section, the panel questioned why the views of unnamed members of the public "should outweigh" the stance of two senior police officers, Chief Supt Helen Harper and Commander Catherine Roper, who were among a number of people to comment on what the Met had to lose by dismissing Williams.

"We would have expected the PO to have grappled with the important fact of {Williams} having carried out a restricted role for two years pre-dismissal and also reflected on the significance of no suspension having been put in place by the {Met} post her conviction. This was not taken into account when she decided that retaining {Williams} would cause reputational harm," the panel said.

Ball's decision, it declared, was "unreasonable".

The Tribunal panel then went on to assess the case itself, pointing out that despite the "extremely serious" nature of the offence for which Williams had been found guilty there was no risk of harm arising from the conviction or of her behaviour being repeated. It also noted "concerns about overall inconsistency with the way she was treated" compared with other people who'd been sent the same child abuse video, an issue I've written about before.

Among a number of matters panel members considered was an "important overall theme" that it could be more damaging for the force should Williams be sacked than if she was kept on.

"Given the unique circumstances of this offence it cannot be rationally contended that were this officer to remain in the {Met} her continued employment would reasonably undermine the confidence of current and future victims," it said.

"Many, many voices from a wide range of positions argue that the {Met} will suffer reputationally in terms of community trust and confidence should dismissal take place. Additionally there is substantial evidence from internal and external voices as to {Williams's} unique organisational skills set and the difference {she} has made to the {Met} and the wider community during her service in a whole range of ways," the panel continued.

It referred to the "passionate and heartfelt" opinions of those who'd spoken up for Williams and acknowledged she'd been a "bridge" between the communities she'd served and the Met at a "very high level", adding there was a "variety of feasible roles" she could fulfil, in spite of being on the sex offenders' register.

The panel said in this "exceptional" case Williams's dismissal would "reduce confidence in the police in some of the communities in which the {Met} has struggled to gain trust", concluding she should instead be given a final written warning for 18 months, as it "maintains public confidence in and the reputation of the police force as a whole".

The case has sharply divided opinion among members of the public - and in the police service. When the judgment was given, it was unclear how Scotland Yard would respond. Now we know. It's seeking to overturn the panel's decision in the High Court to ensure that Robyn Williams never works for the Met again.

The Met said in a statement that Williams's case was one of two Police Appeal Tribunal (PAT) cases it was challenging by way of judicial review. Details of the second case haven't yet been revealed.

"The PAT has made findings in two separate cases that overturned carefully considered decisions to dismiss officers from the Metropolitan Police, which had been made in special case hearings following criminal convictions. The special case hearings had deemed that the convictions amount to gross misconduct, and that the officers should be dismissed. In both cases the PAT did not agree with these findings and replaced the officers' dismissals with a final written warning," said the Met.

"Whilst both cases are unique with individual circumstances and therefore differences in the legal arguments for the judicial review, in both cases the Met believes there was a failure by the PAT to make a proper assessment of the seriousness of the convictions. The Met also finds the duty to reinstate, as a result of the decisions of the PAT, is also in potential conflict with vetting processes.

"In challenging the legal principles leading to the PAT’s decisions, the Met is seeking to ensure a lawful and consistent approach to misconduct hearings in the future, bearing in mind there is a serious issue about how disciplinary panels and PAT’s approach criminal convictions. These PAT rulings currently leave a lack of clarity for disciplinary panels in determining the outcome of such conduct cases and this has an associated impact on public confidence," the force said, adding it would be "inappropriate" to comment further as legal proceedings were underway.

Both officers were reinstated after their successful appeal rulings; Williams is working in an "interim role" in the Met's corporate services department, the force said. "We are engaged with her to identify her longer term role."

How much longer the 56-year-old Nottingham-born officer gets to work for the force that is trying again to sack her is unclear. But the leadership of Scotland Yard clearly believes the principles it's fighting for are worth the troublesome headlines, internal rows and divisive legal wrangling that are certain to lie ahead.

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