A Devon police sergeant who sent colleagues a “disgusting and grossly offensive” doctored image of George Floyd’s arrest has been cleared by a judge of breaking the law after she accepted it was meant as a joke.
Geraint Jones, 47, a custody sergeant in Torquay, shared the meme with colleagues at Devon and Cornwall police less than a week after Floyd’s death in May last year.
During his trial, Jones said the issue of whether the image – in which the ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty on Tuesday of murdering Floyd, was replaced with a naked black man – had a racial angle “never even entered my mind”. It was intended to amuse his colleagues rather than cause offence, he said.
The district judge, Jo Matson, ruled that though most people would be appalled by the image, the prosecution had not proved it was not meant simply as a joke.
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. They have not made me sure it was not intended as a joke by Mr Jones.”
His acquittal caused surprise among colleagues in the Devon and Cornwall force. One source said: “It’s USA one, UK nil. That’s unusual on issues of race. The US got it right, the UK got it wrong. There is surprise in the force.”
Plymouth magistrates court heard that the officer had forwarded the meme to a WhatsApp group of eight other people, including six police officers, after he received it from a friend. The meme featured Floyd’s arrest in Minneapolis on 25 May, with an image of a naked American man, Wardy Joubert III, taking the place of Chauvin.
Jones, who has served with the police for 23 years, was charged with sending a grossly offensive image contrary to the Communications Act 2003 after an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).
Giving evidence at his trial, Jones said:“Maybe I was after a cheap laugh or trying to raise a smile.”
The temporary assistant chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police, Steve Parker, said Jones remained suspended while an internal disciplinary process took place.
The IOPC investigation said the “performance” of two offices in the WhatsApp group fell short of expectations.
A detention officer has received informal management action over their response to the message and a sergeant is subject to “reflective practice procedures” for not reporting the matter straight away.
Alex Raikes, the director of the charity Stand Against Racism & Inequality, which is based in the south-west of England, expressed surprise and concern at the verdict.
She said: “This sends the wrong message. We need our serving officers to know the gravity of sending out grossly offensive images, mocking atrocities that are happening to black citizens. This is one aspect of institutional racism – to belittle human rights breaches of minority ethnic communities.
“I find it incredible given the unmissable coverage on the murder of George Floyd and the pain it has caused, that this officer did not understand how deeply offensive and traumatic this image would be not just to members of the black and minority ethnic community but to all decent, law abiding members of British society.”
Weyman Bennett, the joint national secretary of Stand up to Racism, said: “British justice has to be questioned much more than American justice today. I don’t believe that racism is a matter of a joke or a gaffe.”
The community activist Desmond Jaddoo, who is working with the family of a black man who died after being arrested in Devon, said: “On a day when the world has seen a slight change, I see this as a setback in this country in terms of race relations.”