Cleveland Police is to review past cases where it used snooping powers over the last six years after it was revealed that officers unlawfully obtained the phone records of North East journalists.
The force’s chief constable Iain Spittal announced a major overhaul of the force’s Professional Standards Department, and said its replacement could be headed by a candidate from outside the police.
The review follows a string of scandals.
Last month, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) heard that the force used anti-terror legislation, known as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), to find out the source of damaging leaks.
The force tracked the phones of Northern Echo journalists Graeme Hetherington and Julia Breen over months in 2012 – while she was on maternity leave – as well as other individuals.
The force has also lost a high-profile employment tribunal.
Although the IPT findings will not be released until later this month, Mr Spittal said the panel has indicated the force’s use of RIPA to find the source of leaks to the media was unlawful.
He said: “Whilst we have not received the final judgment, on behalf of the organisation, I feel it is right to apologise for the use of RIPA in 2012.
“As a result, before Christmas I made contact with the individuals concerned to offer personal apologies to them.”
Mr Spittal was not in charge of the force at the time of the phone tracking and said that since he joined the force in 2013 there had been no use of RIPA legislation to identify the source of leaks to the media.
The force has commissioned an independent review to address key questions that have arisen as a result of this case, and it will also consider cases dating back over the past six years.
“There needs to be a fundamental change in how we deal with complaints and how we investigate wrong-doing – and now is the right time to begin the change.”
The force will look at how other regulatory bodies operate and its new head could come from outside the police.
Police and Crime Commissioner Coppinger said: “A key commitment of my Police and Crime Plan was for Cleveland Police to become a national lead in terms of professional standards.
“It is clear from recent cases that mistakes have been made in the past. “I hope those affected can look at the changes we are now implementing and accept we have listened, we have learned and we are determined to improve.”