Cleveland's police and crime commissioner steps down with immediate effect following IOPC referral

The police and crime commissioner (PCC) for Cleveland, Barry Coppinger, has resigned with immediate effect after his conduct was referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) by Chief Constable Richard Lewis.

Sep 8, 2020
By Tony Thompson

A spokesperson for the force said that Mr Lewis had written to the IOPC and the office of the police and crime commissioner (OPCC) for Cleveland on September 3 outlining: “concerns of alleged unlawful and/or improper behaviour contrary to the Data Protection Act 2018 and/or the Freedom of Information Act 2000”.

The concerns are believed to centre around WhatsApp messages on Mr Coppinger’s personal mobile phone, which have since been deleted. The content or nature of the messages has not been disclosed.

In a letter to Mr Lewis, Mr Coppinger wrote: “I have felt under siege since the damning report into Cleveland Police 12 months ago, and have been working and making decisions while experiencing considerable, cumulative stress. It has reached the stage where this is now impacting upon my health.

“Recent events will only add to this and therefore I do believe it is better that I step aside now and allow someone else to take charge until the re-scheduled election in May 2021.”

A statement released by the OPCC for Cleveland said: “The OPCC senior management team have the necessary delegations in the short-term to maintain business continuity, ensuring Police and Crime Plan priorities continue to be delivered.

“We will work with the Cleveland police and crime panel in relation to their responsibility to appoint an acting PCC from amongst the existing OPCC team and in accordance with the law.

“We have separately been informed that a regulatory process has commenced in respect of Commissioner Coppinger.”

Mr Coppinger’s letter also referred to using and deleting WhatsApp messages on his phone. He wrote: “As you will know, force mobile phones do not support WhatsApp messaging.

“My office, as with many other organisations, has approved the use of WhatsApp groups on personal mobiles and these have been particularly beneficial during the ongoing Covid crisis, where we do not have day-to-day office contact.

“These groups are for short-term transitory messaging like business continuity with a procedure for each group admin to prompt a weekly cleardown so that information isn’t held for longer than necessary and on personal non-work devices.

“I do use WhatsApp on my personal mobile phone and I have cleared messages on a regular basis, not with any intention to conceal anything, but simply due to storage capacity limits.

“Recent focus on this area has led me to consider whether that was the right approach and it is right and proper that the appropriate independent authorities now consider this.”

Mr Coppinger said the deleted messages were “of a mundane, logistical nature and did not… include anything significant”, explaining such communication would only made through secure emails.

He added: “It is clear that the force is making progress in its journey of improvement.

“That’s what the focus must be on, but that would not be the case if I remained in post whilst the situation regarding the WhatsApp messages was looked into.

“That, along with my health concerns, has made me decide to stand down with immediate effect.”

Alex Cunningham MP, who represents Stockton North, paid tribute to Mr Coppinger. “He has dedicated most of his life to public service as a community leader, councillor and PCC, always putting the people he represented first.

“No one can over-estimate his personal sacrifice as he faced some of the toughest situations including the failure of several senior police officers and others to maintain the high standards demanded by Barry and the public.”

Mr Coppinger was first elected in 2012 for a four-year term and won a second in 2016.

Last September, Cleveland Police was the first force in the country to be rated inadequate across all areas examined by inspectors. Following this, Mr Coppinger said he would not stand for re-election.

An interim PCC will be appointed until elections take place in May.

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