An investigation into how a police force used investigatory powers to spy on journalists and former officers has resulted in seven officers being served notices of gross misconduct.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) launched Operation Forbes in February last year to look into how Cleveland Police used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).
The IOPC said that the investigation has now reached a “significant milestone” and that seven officers, including five that are now retired, were served with notices of gross misconduct earlier on Monday and Wednesday, as well as one member of staff.
Cleveland Police gathered call data from the mobile phone used by north-east bureau chief Tom Wilkinson for four days in July 2013.
The force also used RIPA – which is intended to be used in the interests of crime prevention and national security – to trace the mobile phone number of photographer Owen Humphreys to find out who it belonged to.
Officers mistakenly believed Wilkinson might have been the source of a leak about the resignation of the force’s Assistant Chief Officer, Ann Hall.
The first report of her resignation appeared in the Northern Echo on July 12, 2013, and was written by Graeme Hetherington, whose phone was also spied on as part of the investigation.
The police action predated the passing of the ‘save our sources’ law – an amendment to RIPA which ensured that police officer gained approval from a judge before spying on the call records of journalists in order to identify their sources.
Police forces are only supposed to use RIPA to help solve serious crimes. But the power has been widely flouted by police forces around the UK as a means of controlling the unauthorised flow of information to journalists.
The police watchdog said that Operation Forbes is “not currently a criminal investigation” and that the serving of notices is “not a finding of guilt but to inform an officer, or member of staff, that they are under investigation”.
The force’s use of the investigatory powers act was the subject of an Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruling, concluding in January 2017, which found that Cleveland Police had in some cases used it unlawfully.
As a result, then-chief constable Iain Spittal was forced to apologise to the three journalists involved for the force spying on their phones using the act, which is intended to be used in the interests of crime prevention and national security.
The use of the investigatory powers is one of three areas being dealt with by the IOPC operation, with a case of racial discrimination and complaints over an Equality Review carried out by the force in 2011 also being looked over.
The body said that its enquiries into the treatment of now-retired Pc Nadeem Saddique – who a 2015 employment tribunal ruled was the subject of racial discrimination – are complete and that a “final report will soon be sent to the force for their consideration”.
On the 2011 Equality Review, the IOPC said that investigations are ongoing but “we can confirm no notices have been served and this is not a criminal investigation”.
IOPC regional director Miranda Biddle said: “This remains a complex, multi-strand, operation.
“It continues to involve a considerable amount of evidence, which is why these investigations are taking time to complete; we must be thorough in our analysis and explore every available avenue.
“With regard to the investigation relating to the use of the RIPA, the serving of the notices follows detailed conduct assessments. ”
She added: “The decision to serve notices of such severity is not taken lightly, and must meet a specific threshold.
“We have very carefully considered the evidence available to us, at this time, and made the decision to investigate the actions of the identified police officers and member of staff.”
A Cleveland Police spokesman said: “We note the IOPC’s update and continue to recognise the importance to communities, complainants and our staff of reaching a timely conclusion.
“We have a commitment to learning and improving and we will continue to assist the IOPC as it is important that these investigations are resolved.”
Additional reporting: Press Association