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‘Banter’: How Wayne Couzens’ police colleagues tried to fight prosecution over horrific WhatsApp messages

Defendants tried to get charges dismissed by judge and claimed messages were just ‘banter’

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Thursday 22 September 2022 10:04 BST
Officer leaves court after conviction for sharing offensive texts with Sarah Everard’s killer

Three Metropolitan Police officers fought their prosecution for sending racist, misogynist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic and ableist WhatsApp messages from start to finish.

The defendants said their posts were just “banter” or dark jokes and called charges under a law that criminalises grossly offensive communications “ridiculous” in court.

They tried, and failed, to get the case thrown out in July, then 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 out 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 kidnapping, raping and murdering Sarah Everard in March 2021.

Detectives combing through 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 on receipt of what are 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 reach the criminal threshold of “gross offence”.

Cobban, PC Neville and Borders refused to answer questions verbally when interviewed and provided pre-prepared written statements denying any offence.

After they were charged and the case was heard at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, they attempted to have it thrown out.

On 29 July, a judge dismissed an application by their defence lawyers to have the charges dropped.

Serving Metropolitan police officer Jonathon Cobban has been convicted of sending offensive messages (PA Wire)

Defence barrister 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 targeted at anyone”.

He told the court: “The fact that none of those individuals [in the WhatsApp group] took those messages seriously or made a complaint about them is a highly relevant factor, and we say determinative.”

District judge Sarah Turnock said she considered the “defence application to dismiss” the prosecution on the basis there was “no case to answer”.

But she concluded: “Based on evidence and content and context of the messages, I do not accept these submissions.

“I am satisfied that each of the messages are capable of being grossly offensive within the meaning of the 2003 act.”

District judge Turnock said the fact that the WhatsApp group was private and no one in it voiced any complaint “does not render them incapable” of breaching the law.

She told the court that the legal test was whether they were “grossly offensive” to the people they related to – those from a “Black and ethnic minority background, people living in certain areas of London, women, children, disabled and gay people” – rather than those who received them.

The defendants took to the witness box after the dismissal application was thrown out to give evidence in their 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 they could or would be read by anyone outside that group.”

He said that as former officers who guarded sensitive sites they had a “dark sense of humour”, adding: “I meant them to be taken as humorous banter and nothing more.”

Borders, who became a close protection officer after leaving the Metropolitan Police, said the case had “got out of hand”.

Joel Borders arriving at Westminster Magistrates’ Court (PA Wire)

Addressing a female prosecutor, he added: “It’s absolutely ridiculous. You’re trying to criminalise innocent police officers. You’ve got 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 get offended by everything. You need to stop this grossly offensive thing because it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Borders was questioned about a message in which he wrote of a female police officer: “She will use me as an example. Lead me on then get me locked up when I rape and beat her! Sneaky b****.”

He responded: “I was saying she was the type of person who would make a false allegation. Rape and beat should have been in quote marks.

“It’s an exaggerated way of saying she is not to be trusted… she’s the sort of person who is really underhand and devious.”

The court was shown chats appearing to joke about police performing sex acts on domestic violence victims, with Cobban writing: “That's alright, DV victims love it... that’s why they are repeat victims more often than not.”

When asked about the message in court, the officer said it was “quite obviously sarcastic”.

At another point, Cobban described an incident in which 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 slur was “un-targeted derogatory name calling”.

Responding to a colleague’s account of responding to domestic violence incidents days later, Borders wrote: “Bet they all had one thing in common. Women that don’t listen.”

Priti Patel announces inquiry into Sarah Everard murder

When giving evidence in his defence, Borders said he had regularly been called to domestic abuse incidents and that some were “horrendous”, saying the posts were just “silly comments”.

During the same exchange, Cobban called a racially diverse area of London as 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 that the messages were in “very poor taste”.

Borders wrote that he “felt like a spot on a domino” in the London district of Feltham and described Hounslow as “twinned with Baghdad”.

He denied disparaging the areas because of their racial diversity and said he described himself as a spot on a domino as a “celebration of diversity”.

In April 2019, Borders wrote that he could not wait to “shoot some c*** in the face” with a police firearm and Cobban replied: “Me too. I want to taser a cat and a dog to see which reacts better… same with children. Zap zap you little f***ers.”

Borders replied “and a couple of downys?”, in what prosecutors said was a reference to people with Down’s syndrome.

Borders told the court the exchange was “clearly a joke”, adding: “It’s blatantly obvious. I don’t know why this is even here [on the indictment]. It’s ridiculous.”

Cobban called himself an “exemplary” police officer at his trial, saying he had “behaved utterly professionally”.

“Dark humour has always been a coping mechanism for people who do difficult jobs,” he added. “I recognise these are stupid messages.”

Borders said he was “really bothered” by the thought of upsetting 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 2 November, while Cobban and acquitted defendant PC Neville are to face separate disciplinary proceedings as they remain serving officers in the Metropolitan Police.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) started investigating 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 behaviour 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 types of views.

“Behaviour of this nature seriously undermines public confidence in policing. It is part of our role, and for police forces themselves, to ensure that it is rooted out and those responsible are held to account for their actions.”

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