A police officer who sent a “grossly offensive” meme depicting the arrest of George Floyd to a WhatsApp group of colleagues has been acquitted of a criminal charge.
Sergeant Geraint Jones, 47, admitted sharing the image with the group on May 30 last year, five days after Mr Floyd’s death, but insisted he did not mean to cause offence by doing so.
Plymouth Magistrates’ Court heard the officer forwarded the meme to a group of eight others, including six serving police officers, after being sent it by a friend.
The meme featured Mr Floyd’s arrest in Minneapolis, in the US, on May 25, with an image of American man Wardy Joubert III, naked, superimposed on it.
Two members of the WhatsApp group replied with laughing emojis, but one member complained about the image, causing the matter to be referred to Devon and Cornwall Police’s professional standards department.
Sgt Jones, a custody sergeant in Torquay who had served with the police for 23 years, deleted the meme and apologised for sending it.
He was later charged with sending a grossly offensive image, contrary to the Communications Act 2003, following an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
District Judge Jo Matson acquitted Sgt Jones of the charge against him during a hearing at Plymouth Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday.
She said: “Although I, and the majority of people, would find the image Mr Jones sent disgusting and grossly offensive, particularly given the timing of when it was sent and from a serving police officer to other police officers, and although I have found the image to be grossly offensive to the black and minority ethnic community, I find that the prosecution have not proved beyond reasonable doubt the mental element required for a conviction for this offence.
“They have not made me sure it was not intended as a joke by Mr Jones.
“I accept that Mr Jones was not aware of, or recognised, the risk at the time, that the image was liable to cause gross offence to those to whom it relates, and I accept he was not aware of, or recognised, the risk that it may create fear or apprehension in any reasonable member of the public who were to read or see it.
“I therefore find Mr Jones not guilty of this offence and dismiss the charge against him.”
Sgt Jones previously stood trial at the court on March 19.
The trial heard he sent the meme to a WhatsApp group named “work social” just before 8pm on May 30 last year.
It depicted Mr Floyd lying face down on the ground at the time of his death, near a police car.
An image of Wardy Joubert III was superimposed over that of Derek Chauvin – the officer convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter in relation to Mr Floyd’s death.
The judge described how Mr Joubert, who is also dead, was pictured naked with his genitalia over the neck of Mr Floyd.
She ruled that the meme was grossly offensive and said the fact Sgt Jones was a serving police officer sending it to other serving police officers was “relevant to the issue”.
Giving evidence during his trial, Sgt Jones said it “never even entered my mind” that the image might cause gross offence to anyone.
“Maybe I was after a cheap laugh or trying to raise a smile. I didn’t think about it deeply and I didn’t look at the image in detail,” he told the court.
The judge described Sgt Jones as a “very honest and open witness” during the case and found he had “clear regret” for sending the meme.
“I accept what Mr Jones tells me that, at that time, Mr Jones believed he was sending something as a joke – it clearly was not a joke and in retrospect he realises it certainly was not and that it was grossly offensive – but I am considering what was going on in his mind at the time,” she said.
She added that Sgt Jones had previously seen and forwarded other memes featuring Mr Joubert, including possibly to some members of the WhatsApp group.
The court heard other images of Mr Joubert included scenes showing former US president Donald Trump and the late Captain Sir Tom Moore.
Speaking after the case, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said its report found Sgt Jones had a “disciplinary case to answer for gross misconduct”.
Catrin Evans, from the IOPC, added: “It will now be for the force to take forward disciplinary action.”
The watchdog found no other serving officers in the WhatsApp group had a case to answer for misconduct.
A detention officer had received informal management action from the force about their response to the message, and a sergeant was subject to reflective practice procedures for not reporting it straight away.
Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Steve Parker, of Devon and Cornwall Police, said Sgt Jones remained subject to an internal disciplinary process.
“Sgt Jones currently remains suspended while this process remains ongoing,” he said.
“Devon & Cornwall Police values equality and diversity enormously and we have an expectation of all of our staff to not only mirror this but act as advocates in our communities to support this ethos.”
The force will “address and learn from” issues raised in the IOPC report, he added.