A "foolish" police intelligence officer cried in the dock as a court heard how she destroyed her career by taking photos of top secret intelligence – including notes for a murder investigation.
Lauren Johnson, 24, was spared jail after a judge at Liverpool Crown Court heard she had not taken the images with "corrupt intent" – but her dream of becoming a full police officer was in tatters.
Anti-corruption detectives at Merseyside Police initially feared Johnson, of Park Lane, Bootle, had been passing sensitive information about investigations to organised criminals and conducted a massive investigation – including grilling her family.
But Andrew Ford, prosecuting, told the court it appeared Johnson had been taking photos to help her remember information or to write reports for senior officers.
However, after buying a new phone she lent her old model to a then boyfriend – meaning top secret information including the addresses of houses due to be raided was in the hands of members of the public.
Mr Ford told the court: "At the time the defendant was employed as an intelligence development officer with Merseyside Police.
"One of her jobs was to review and seek to develop any police intelligence that may help Merseyside Police in their targeting of organised crime.
"At the end of 2018 the defendant had been away on sick leave, and during that absence, on November 16, she sent a WhatsApp message on her own phone to a colleague in the intelligence department seeking, it is fair to say, gossip about a member of an organised crime group.
"It was, we say, completely inappropriate. From the manner of the message it became clear the defendant knew a girl she believed was going out with the man under investigation."
The court heard Johnson's colleague reported the message to her superiors, leading to the anti-corruption investigation.
When Johnson returned to work in December, detectives demanded to see her phone, which she recovered from her then partner and handed in.
The force found around 30 images of unexecuted search warrants, operational intelligence, and notes relating to a June 2018 murder enquiry.
When confronted, Johnson said the photos had been saved in WhatsApp messages on an old phone, which she had deleted.
However when she got a new model the images were automatically downloaded from a cloud database without her knowledge.
Judge Neil Flewitt, QC, noted that the phone had no pin code and would have been accessible to anyone able to get their hands on it.
However the prosecution accepted her boyfriend who borrowed the phone to use the Sat Nav, had a clean record and no links to organised crime.
No evidence emerged of any wider leaks, and the prosecution accepted a guilty plea to the charge of misconduct in a public office on the basis she did not take the pictures for "corrupt purposes."
Mr Ford said she told detectives in interview: "I would not have put my job in jeopardy for something like this, I thought they [the pictures] were gone, I thought they were gone."
He said: "The prosecution suggest this is important…she knew she was wrong to record them."
Trevor Parry-Jones, defending, said his client had been "stupid" but had been punished by the loss of her job and the lengthy delay on the case caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
He told the court: "Her criminality is foolishness, there's nothing sinister, there's nothing to suggest that anything has been passed on or even that anybody has wanted anything to be passed on."
The court also heard Johnson had been diagnosed with the chronic condition ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome, which a medical report suggested may have contributed to reckless behaviour at the time of her offending.
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Judge Flewitt said: "While the prosecution disputed some of your reasons…they do not suggest any sinister motives for your actions.
"You did not take the pictures for any corrupt purposes, there was no suggestion of financial gain… in short the prosecution accept your actions were foolish rather than malign.
"But what you did was betray the trust of your colleagues."
Judge Flewitt said Johnson's exceptional good character, medical condition and lack of corrupt motives meant he could suspend any sentence.
Johnson sobbed in relief as she was sentence to 10 months in prison, but suspended for 12 months, with 25 rehabilitation activity days.
Detective Superintendent Andy Williams, from the Anti-Corruption Unit, said: "The access all police employees have to confidential police data is strictly controlled and numerous policies exist which make it clear what research is legitimate and what is prohibited.
"Employees have this instilled into them when they join the organisation and are reminded of the importance of these policies throughout their police career.
"The public rightly expects Merseyside Police to protect this data from misuse and abuse and the outcome of this case should demonstrate to people just how seriously we take such breaches and also the repercussions for those found responsible for committing them."