There are times when one utterly despairs of the priorities of our police and prosecution authorities. Earlier this week the crew of an Essex police unit took time off from pursuing dangerous drivers on the M25 in order to flag down a driver for displaying offensive slogan “bollocks to Brexit” on his Mini. According to the police this constituted an offence under S.5 of the Public Order Act 1986 (needless to say they were wrong). After 40 minutes of argument the Remainers agreed to rub out the first three letters, so that the slogan read “locks to Brexit.” Result! Especially, of course, for the dangerous drivers who they didn’t catch while arguing about a public order law they misunderstood.
But this act of petty stupidity pales into insignificance beside the utterly disproportionate investigation and prosecution of Robyn Williams, a Metropolitan Police Superintendent with 36 years of exemplary service, commended for her work on the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, and one of Britain’s most senior black police women. Williams now has a criminal record and was today sentenced to 200 hours unpaid work, ordered to register as a sex offender – which she quite clearly is not – for 5 years and may now lose her job.
Her crime was to “possess” an indecent image of a child. The image in question was a video sent to her by her sister, who was outraged that it was circulating on social media and wanted its maker prosecuted.
There has never been the slightest suggestion that Williams had any wish to possess the video, and the jury acquitted her of the more serious charge of corruptly not reporting it in order to protect her sister. Expert evidence that emerged during the trial – and it should have been established by the prosecution experts before the trial started – made it quite clear that she had not even looked at the video. However, the law is such that unless she could prove that she had “no cause to suspect it to be indecent,” or that she had not kept it on her phone “for an unreasonable length of time” the jury had to convict her of the possession charge. Unfortunately for her, she was unable to prove her innocence. Thus a law designed to catch online paedophiles has instead trapped a pillar of society. “I have no doubt,” said the judge even as he was passing a sentence that meant she will be registered as and treated as a sex offender for the next 5 years, “that you are a thoroughly decent woman.”
Before instigating any prosecution the CPS is meant to consider not just whether there is sufficient evidence for a conviction, but also whether a prosecution is in the public interest. The public interest in pursuing a corruption charge was obvious enough, but once that fell away that should have been an end to it. She should never have faced an additional charge of possessing a video she neither asked for, wanted or even saw. Indeed, the video was sent to 16 other people, none of whom were prosecuted for possessing it. She was singled out.
Of course, as a police officer she should, as she accepted, have reported the matter as soon as she learnt of the possibility that she had been sent an illegal image. But this omission is the only aspect of her behaviour that is open to criticism, and once established that it was not a corrupt omission it was not criminal either. It could and should have been dealt with by internal police disciplinary proceedings, without the need for a 3 week trial at the Old Bailey, the instruction of one of the country’s top QCs to prove an entirely technical offence, and the public shaming of a dedicated public servant.
It is impossible to see what purpose has been served by the conviction or the sentence. A fine police officer has been publicly humiliated, has acquired a criminal record, has been placed, absurdly, on the sex offenders register for 5 years, and for good measure has had her relationship with her sister destroyed. All that money and effort expended to destroy a fundamentally good woman. What a terrible waste. What a terrible error of judgement by the CPS.