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Head of 'failing' Cleveland Police force resigns over ill health

The police and crime commissioner for a scandal-hit force has resigned because of an inquiry into deleted WhatsApp messages and work-related stress. 

Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Barry Coppinger revealed he is standing down from the post he has held since 2012.

In a letter to Richard Lewis, the Chief Constable of Cleveland Police, he said he has felt ‘under siege’ since the force was deemed ‘inadequate’ by an inspectorate last year.

It is understood the Independent Office for Police Conduct has launched an investigation into Mr Coppinger’s use of WhatsApp.

Mr Coppinger came under fire last summer when the force was deemed inadequate after an inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services.

The Tory Tees Valley elected mayor Ben Houchen last year called for the PCC to resign, saying: ‘Cleveland Police have been a basket case for years.

Labour's Barry Coppinger (pictured) has written to the Chief Constable of Cleveland Police, Richard Lewis, to explain his decision to stand down

Labour’s Barry Coppinger (pictured) has written to the Chief Constable of Cleveland Police, Richard Lewis, to explain his decision to stand down

‘Hacking of journalists’ phones, institutional racism, more Chief Constables than I’ve had hot dinners and now HMI put them into special measures.’

Announcing his decision to step down, Mr Coppinger wrote to Mr Lewis saying: ‘Pressure is part and parcel of the job of a PCC, particularly so in Cleveland.

‘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.’

Mr Coppinger also referred to deleting work-related WhatsApp messages on his phone.

He said: ‘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.’

He said he had ‘cleared messages on a regular basis’ not because he had anything to hide, but because of ‘storage capacity limits’. 

‘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,’ he added.

In November 2018 the force was accused of abandoning the streets of Hartlepool (pictured) after the town of 90,000 was left with only ten officers on duty at a time

In November 2018 the force was accused of abandoning the streets of Hartlepool (pictured) after the town of 90,000 was left with only ten officers on duty at a time

‘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.’

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

In September last year Cleveland Police was rated inadequate in terms of its ability to reduce crime, protect the public and operate efficiently.  

Mr Coppinger also referred to using and deleting WhatsApp messages on his phone (file image)

Mr Coppinger also referred to using and deleting WhatsApp messages on his phone (file image)

The force, which covers part of the North East including the towns of Hartlepool, Redcar, Stockton-on-Tees and Middlesbrough, has been dogged by scandal in recent years and has had six chief constables in almost as many years.

In November 2018 it was accused of abandoning the streets of Hartlepool after the town, which has a population of 90,000, was left with only ten officers on duty at a time.  

Residents grouped together to patrol their neighbourhoods after a series of thefts and burglaries were ignored by police.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Phil Gormley said Cleveland was a ‘failing force’ where there had been ‘significant’ deterioration in the past two years. It is the only one of 15 forces the body has inspected recently that has been rated inadequate in all areas.  

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