SEVEN former and serving Cleveland Police officers are facing a gross misconduct investigation by the police watchdog following a scandal which saw the force unlawfully monitoring the phones of journalists, officers and a solicitor.

Watchdog the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said that earlier this week notices of gross misconduct were served to seven Cleveland officers- five of whom are now retired - and one member of staff.

Cleveland Police said the 'status' of the serving staff was currently under review, when asked if any officers had been suspended.

West Midlands Police is carrying out the inquiry on behalf of the IOPC, regarding the misuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), under which officers can access call records to detect serious crime or terrorism.

But a hearing by High Court judges two years ago found Cleveland Police had acted unlawfully when it monitored the phones of journalists from The Northern Echo to track down the source of several news stories, including one which found that the Chief Constable at the time Jacqui Cheer had admitted there were institutional racism issues at Cleveland Police.

The Northern Echo: Former Cleveland Police officer Mark Dias and former Cleveland Police federation chairman Steve MatthewsFormer Cleveland Police officer Mark Dias and former Cleveland Police federation chairman Steve Matthews

Two officers, Mark Dias and Steve Matthews, then the chair of Cleveland Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, and a Federation solicitor also had their phone records searched by the force in a bid to track down the source. Journalists from the Press Association were also targeted.

An IOPC spokesman said yesterday: "The use of RIPA was the subject of a 2017 Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruling, which found that Cleveland Police had in some cases used these powers unlawfully.

"We can confirm that earlier this week (13 and 15 May 2019), following detailed assessments, notices of gross misconduct were served to seven Cleveland Police officers (five are now retired) and one member of staff.

"This is not currently a criminal investigation. The serving of a notice is not a finding of guilt but to inform an officer, or member of staff, that they are under investigation and the level of severity."

The Northern Echo: PC Nadeem Saddique won an employment tribunal against Cleveland PolicePC Nadeem Saddique won an employment tribunal against Cleveland Police

A linked inquiry running into racial discrimination faced by former VIP protection officer PC Nadeem Saddique, who won an employment tribunal against the force, is now complete and a final report due out soon.

And an independent investigation looking at complaints linked to how Cleveland Police carried out an equality review in 2011, which includes allegations of discrimination, is ongoing, the IOPC said, but no notices had been served and it was not a criminal investigation.

IOPC Regional Director, Miranda Biddle: “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.

“I’m well aware of the impact this operation is having on all those involved, but I’m pleased that we are moving forward and have now reached some significant milestones. Our work with the forces involved in this operation is productive, and their continued cooperation in these matters is acknowledged.

“With regard to the investigation relating to the use of the RIPA, the serving of the notices follows detailed conduct assessments. 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 spokesman for Cleveland Police said: “We note the IOPC’s update and continue to recognise the importance to communities, complainants and our staff of reaching a timely conclusion.

“With regard to the three areas under investigation, the matters relating to the Equality Review were referred in 2014 and the issues which came from the PC Saddique employment tribunal were referred in 2016. In relation to the third area we made a referral to the IOPC in 2016 following an Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruling concerning the Force’s use of RIPA.

“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.”