Three police officers fought their prosecution for sending racist, misogynistic, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic and sexist WhatsApp messages from start to finish.
The defendants said their posts were just “smarts” or dark jokes and called charges under a law criminalizing grossly offensive communications “ridiculous” in court.
They tried, and failed, to have the case dismissed in July, and subsequently denied all charges.
Jonathon Cobban, 35, William Neville, 34, and Joel Borders, 45, admitted sending the messages but said they were jokes, had been misinterpreted or did not meet the legal threshold for an offence.
On Wednesday, Borders was found guilty of all five charges he faced, Cobban was convicted of three of five and PC Neville was acquitted of all charges.
None of the seven colleagues in the chat had ever raised any concerns about the posts, and they were discovered only after group member Wayne Couzens was arrested for the kidnapping, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021.
Detectives scouring his phone for evidence found he was in a WhatsApp group called “Bottle and Stoppers/Atkin’s Puppets”, which contained a total of seven armed officers who had transferred from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary to the Metropolitan Police.
“There is no evidence that any of the defendants, or the other members of the group, ‘called out’ or challenged any of their co-defendants after receiving what is said by the prosecution to be the offensive messages,” prosecutor Edward Brown KC told the court.
Members were identified and questioned about messages from 2019 that were deemed to meet the criminal threshold of “serious offence”.
Cobban, PC Neville and Borders refused to answer questions orally when interviewed and gave pre-prepared written statements denying any wrongdoing.
After they were charged and the case was heard at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, they tried to have it thrown out.
On July 29, a judge rejected an application by their defense lawyers to have the charges dropped.
Defense lawyer Nicholas Yeo had argued that the messages did not meet the legal definition of “grossly offensive” because they were sent in a private chat group where “no one was offended and they were not directed at anyone”.
He told the court: “The fact that none of these people [in the WhatsApp group] took these messages seriously or made a complaint about them is a very relevant factor, and we say decisive.”
District Judge Sarah Turnock said she was considering the “defence application to dismiss” the prosecution on the basis that there was “no case to answer”.
But she concluded: “Based on the evidence and the content and context of the messages, I do not accept these allegations.
“I am satisfied that each of the messages is capable of being grossly offensive under the 2003 Act.”
District Judge Turnock said the fact that the WhatsApp group was private and no one in it made any complaint “does not enable them to break the law.
She told the court the legal test was whether they were “grossly offensive” to the people they were linked to – those from “black and minority ethnic backgrounds, people living in certain areas of London, women, children, disabled people and gay people” – instead of those who received them.
The defendants took to the witness box after the dismissal application was thrown out to give evidence to the defence.
Cobban told Westminster Magistrates’ Court: “As far as I was concerned, these messages were sent on a private, secured WhatsApp group and I had no expectation that they could or would be read by anyone outside that group.”
He said that, as former officers guarding sensitive sites, they had a “dark sense of humour”, adding: “I thought they should be taken as humorous pranks and nothing more.”
Borders, who became a close protection officer after leaving the Metropolitan Police, said the case had “got out of hand”.
Addressing a female prosecutor, he added: “It’s absolutely ridiculous. You are trying to criminalize innocent police officers. You have two really good police officers in there who are probably going to lose their jobs over this, just because you take exception to certain jokes.
“People are offended by everything. You need to stop this grossly offensive thing because it is absolutely ridiculous.”
Borders was questioned about a message in which he wrote about a female police officer: “She wants to use me as an example. Lead me on, then lock me up as I rape and beat her! Sneaky b****.”
He replied: “I said she was the type of person who would make a false allegation. Rape and beating should have been in quotation marks.
“That’s an overstatement for saying she’s not to be trusted…she’s the kind of person who’s really underhanded and devious.”
The court was shown chats that appear to joke about police carrying out sexual acts on victims of domestic violence, with Cobban writing: “It’s okay, DV victims love it … that’s why they’re repeat victims more often than not.”
Asked about the message in court, the officer said it was “quite obviously sarcastic”.
At another point, Cobban described an incident where he had to look after a person who needed hospital treatment after self-harming as an “attention-seeking, self-harming f*g”.
He denied targeting the gay community with the comment and said his use of the statement was “untargeted derogatory name-calling”.
In response to a colleague’s account of responding to domestic violence incidents days later, Borders wrote: “Bet they all had one thing in common. Women who don’t listen.”
Giving evidence in his defence, Mr Borders said he had been regularly called to domestic abuse incidents and that some were “atrocious”, saying the posts were just “silly comments”.
During the same exchange, Cobban called a racially diverse area of London a “s***hole”, described a member of the public who asked him for directions as “yellow” and remarked: “Not even the shops are in English.”
The officer denied being racist, but admitted the messages were in “very bad taste”.
Borders wrote that he “felt like a speck on a domino” in the London district of Feltham and described Hounslow as “twins with Baghdad”.
He denied denigrating the areas because of their racial diversity and said he described himself as a place on a domino as a “celebration of diversity”.
In April 2019, Borders wrote that he couldn’t wait to “shoot an asshole in the face” with a police weapon, to which Cobban replied: “Me too. I’ll try a cat and a dog to see which one reacts better… same with kids. Zap zap you little bastards.”
Borders replied “and a couple of downys?”, which prosecutors said was a reference to people with Down syndrome.
Borders told the court the exchange was “clearly a joke”, adding: “It’s obviously obvious. I don’t know why this is even here [on the indictment]. It’s ridiculous.”
Cobban called himself an “exemplary” police officer during his trial, saying he had “conducted himself completely professionally”.
“Dark humor has always been a coping mechanism for people doing difficult jobs,” he added. “I realize these are stupid messages.”
Borders said he was “really bothered” by the thought of disturbing the public, adding: “I’ll help people cross the road, I’ll open doors for people, because that’s the kind of person I am.”
Borders and Cobban will be sentenced on November 2, while Cobban and acquitted defendant PC Neville face separate disciplinary proceedings as they remain Metropolitan Police officers.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) opened the investigation into the men in April 2021 and found that all three defendants and a further three officers in the group had cases to answer for gross misconduct. Borders subsequently left the Metropolitan Police.
The officers are accused of breaching police standards of professional conduct between March 2019 and October 2019 by sending discriminatory or inappropriate messages, and failing to challenge or report inappropriate comments made by others.
IOPC regional director Sal Naseem said: “The messages sent by these police officers were inexcusable and particularly disturbing given the profession they represent. Social media cannot be a hiding place for these kinds of views.
“Behavior of this nature seriously undermines public confidence in the police. It is part of our role, and of the police forces themselves, to ensure that it is eradicated and that those responsible are held accountable for their actions.”