Spotlight interview: Samantha Robins
Rarely are we left quite so awe-struck as when we spoke to current parent, Samantha Robins! Samantha was one of the first police Intelligence Analysts in the UK at a time when psychological profiling was still in its infancy. During her incredible career, Samantha has led the intelligence research teams on hundreds of serious violent crimes, including high-profile cases such as the abduction and murder of Milly Dowler.
What drew you to a career in the police?
My Grandad had been a Police Officer in Brighton during the war and I was always fascinated by his stories and looking through his old pocket books which he had retained. I also had an unhealthy addiction to the old black and white Sherlock Holmes repeats which used to air on a Friday night at 6pm, I used to love the ones that started with a foggy scene, the more mysterious the better!
While joining the police had been my intention, when I went to university I was drawn in a slightly different direction. I was studying for a degree in Psychology at Cardiff when Rachel Nickell was very sadly murdered whilst walking with her young son on Wimbledon Common. The papers started to report that police had engaged the services of a psychologist to help them form a picture of the offender. I immediately wanted to know more but knowledge of psychological profiling in this country at the time was non-existent. I took what can only be described as a leap of faith, picked up my copy of the novel Silence of the Lambs and thought, ‘Right, where does Clarice Starling work?’. I wrote a letter, addressed to ‘FBI, Quantico, Virginia, USA’ (I kid you not, there was no Internet to look things up in those days) and popped it the post. I thought nothing more of it until I got a slightly frantic phone call from my Dad who said, ‘There is a huge parcel here from the FBI… what an earth have you been up to?’!
Due to the Freedom of Information Act in America, they had kindly sent me every research paper and published documentation written by their profiling department which was founded and headed up by the late, great Robert Ressler and Roy Hazlewood. The Netflix series Manhunt is based on these two legends. Well, that was me hooked! I based my dissertation on this little-known area of psychology after begging my lecturers to allow me to do it.
I was then fortunate enough to have a very random meeting on a train with a lovely man called Dr. Peter Dean who turned out to be the Queen’s Coroner for Essex. I stayed in contact with him and one day he sent me through details of a one-week course at Dundee University on Offender Profiling given by Robert Ressler and Roy Hazlewood from the FBI. He told me I needed to get on that course. It cost £800 for the week, which I couldn’t afford, so I wrote another letter to the professor hosting the course stating how much I would like to attend and my interest in the subject. He called me up and said he was so impressed with my enthusiasm that I could come on the course for £50! From there I met the people who would go on to give me first job in policing and shape my career into intelligence and analysis.
Can you summarise what your role entailed or talk us through a typical week?
In policing, there is literally no such thing as a typical week or even day. You quite often hear the term ‘a job like no other’ and that is fundamentally true. Part of the joy of the job is getting out of bed and never knowing what challenges you will face. Every murder investigation is different but as the Intelligence Manager it was my job to assess the case as it was coming in and start to develop an intelligence strategy. This would lay out what we knew, what we didn’t know and where we were going to get our information from which would allow us to sew the story together of how this offence has occurred.
The sources of data are endless and include statements, phone billings and handset downloads, maps, officer’s reports, intelligence reports, house-to-house information, ANPR, photos, messages from the public, the media, etc. It was my role to make sure my team used all of this information in the best way possible and provide new lines of enquiry for the Senior Investigating Office to identify and arrest any suspects. Once a suspect had been arrested, we supported the interview process by checking facts and, when charged, we were responsible for preparing all the information a jury would need to understand the job.
What is your proudest achievement?
There is immense satisfaction knowing that in the darkest hours for a family you can provide some answers to what has happened to their loved one and why. When you achieve justice for a victim who’s voice has been taken away, that is a job well done. I am also very proud of growing and developing a team of really brilliant researchers and analysts.
What did you find most challenging?
Seeing the very darkest side of human nature was always very challenging but was balanced by the brilliant family that the police is. You could always rely on a team member to cheer you up if things got really tough. The growing amount of digital data was, and continues to provide, challenges for policing. I currently work in an environment where I am looking to see how this can be improved to make the task of analysis faster and more efficient.
You’ve worked on some quite traumatic, high-profile cases over your career. Are there any that particularly stand out and if so, why?
It sounds terribly clichéd to say that you remember every case for the victim and the individual circumstances but it is true. Some cases attract more media attention than others and those always cause you to have them at the forefront of your mind because there is so much focus on them.
I worked on the Amanda (Milly) Dowler case for many years and was in court the day Levi Bellfield was convicted for her abduction and murder. That was an unbelievable moment of tension and then relief. It felt as if time slowed down as the foreperson for the jury was asked if they had reached a verdict. The families of all of Levi Bellfield’s victims were in court also and it was incredibly emotional. I was also privileged to work on the murder of the Al Hilli family who were shot on a remote forest path in Annecy, France. That job was very unusual as we had to work closely with French Police, which was new for everyone. The job was also the constant spotlight for conspiracy theories by the media, which presented its own set of challenges.
How did you switch off from work after a difficult case?
I was very fortunate to have a brilliantly supportive husband, family and amazing friends who never gave me a hard time for coming home in the early hours of the morning and leaving for work again a few hours later or for missing birthdays, Christmases or other big occasions. You cannot do the role without the ability to walk out of the door and leave the case in the office until the next day. It isn’t about not caring, far from it, it was about making sure you had the resilience to see the case all the way through and get justice for the victim and their family.
Which TV police dramas would you recommend for being true to life?
I get asked this question a lot! Police dramas are exactly that, they always exaggerate certain elements of investigation to make things engaging for the viewer. I spend a lot of time saying, ‘That would never happen’ whilst watching them, but I do find them entertaining. They also never depict the intelligence and analytical work! You always get the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) doing everything, including interviewing the suspects when the reality is there are whole teams of specialist officers who excel at different parts of the investigation.
I think that the psychology of an offender was well portrayed in the The Fall although it should be stressed that the sort of psychopathy seen there is extremely rare. If anyone wanted a true glimpse into how an investigation runs and what it takes to catch a murderer there are currently a lot of very excellent documentaries on a number of channels.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
This is such an excellent question! I would say that you should seek out a career that really interests you. When you meet people from that field of work, don’t be afraid to ask them for help or guidance or just generally about why they do what they do. If people love their job they will be happy to share their experience and encourage others towards that career path. I would also say do not worry if the path you thought would take starts to head in a different direction. Take a chance and see where it takes you – you may love it! If you don’t love it then you can stop, reassess and set a different course. Above all, do what you love because you will do it with passion.