Second investigation into former police chief Barry Coppinger is dropped

A former police tsar has seen a second investigation into allegations he broke the law dropped by an information watchdog.

Ex-Cleveland Police and Crime Commissioner Barry Coppinger resigned his post in September amid allegations of unlawful activity connected to WhatsApp messages.

He was referred to the police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), by the force’s Chief Constable Richard Lewis – and a probe was launched into alleged unlawful and/or improper behaviour in connection with the deletion of messages on the app. 

Last week, the IOPC found the former Labour commissioner had not committed a criminal offence. 

And now the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has revealed it won’t be taking further action after its own separate probe. 

The allegations centred around whether messages being deleted may have prevented full disclosure obligations when responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

An ICO spokesman said: “After making enquiries to establish whether potential offences contrary to s77 of the Freedom of Information Act may have been committed by the former police and crime commissioner in Cleveland, we have assessed the information and we will not be taking any further action.”

Mr Coppinger was set to step down from the £70,000 commissioner role at elections earlier this year.

Barry Coppinger

But the covid pandemic saw him carry on in post ahead of rescheduled polls in 2021. 

He resigned in September pointing to the toll the role was having on his health – saying he had felt “under siege” since a damning report into Cleveland Police last year.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner (OPCC) said it had fully co-operated with the ICO.

She added: “We have received notification that the ICO has found that there exists no evidence of criminal intent in relation to the actions of former commissioner Barry Coppinger. 

“They have also separately determined that the matter neither merits nor requires further investigation.

“We thank them and the IOPC for their detailed assessments.

“Mr Coppinger has been informed of the outcome of both investigations and we will continue to ensure the appropriate support is available with regard to his well-being. 

“We wish him well in his retirement.”

Last week, the IOPC confirmed it would not be investigating the complaint over WhatsApp messages after a “thorough assessment” found no criminal wrongdoing. 

An IOPC spokeswoman added: “The information provided suggests the new WhatsApp policy was introduced prior to the relevant FOI request being received – and that messages were deleted in line with that policy.

“We are therefore required to return this matter to Cleveland Police and Crime Panel to be handled in a reasonable and proportionate manner.”

At the time the WhatsApp allegations came to light, Mr Coppinger said his office had approved the use of WhatsApp groups on personal mobiles to help during the covid crisis.  

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

“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.”

In the wake of the probes, Mr Coppinger thanked the IOPC and the ICO for their diligence.

The former commissioner said: “I have maintained from the outset that at no stage did I seek to thwart any information request and I am pleased to have been exonerated so conclusively and in such a timely manner.

“I would like to thank all the partner organisations, community groups, officers and staff and individual members of the public who have taken the trouble to send me so many messages of support since I stood down.

“And also the staff at the office of police and crime commissioner for the dedication they have shown during my time as commissioner.

“It has been a tremendous honour to serve as Cleveland’s first elected police and crime commissioner – and to be re-elected.

“I am proud of the tremendous work we have carried out in supporting victims and vulnerable people, tackling re-offending and working in partnership with local communities.

“I wish the force all the best in its continuing journey of improvement.”

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