Social Media and the Police

I am known on occasions to waffle on a bit… I’m going to go around the houses a bit with this but stick with me.

Truth is such a big issue in society and business and your life. Why are we so afraid of it? Why can’t we say “Yes we made a mess of that” or “this took us by suprise and we were unprepared” or “yes darling those trousers do make your bum look big”. Truth is often the hardest thing to say but in reality it is the only way to move on. Is it comfortable. No. Is it easy? No. Is it the best thing to do? Yes.

My Dad is 76 years old. He sits at his computer, sends emails, surfs the net, shops online, interacts on Facebook, uses Office software and publishes the church magazine. Technology does not phase him and he’s willing to get stuck in and have a try. I’m very proud of him.

My Mum is 73 years old. She has no interest in computers whatsoever. She doesn’t send email, she would stand for 5 mins wondering where the computer switched on and can just about manage a basic mobile phone. Technology has no place in her life. She does however make the best cakes ever and she’s a bit of a dab hand at making soft toys. I’m very proud of her.

Two people whom I love dearly that have very different views about technology and social media. The world of Facebook and Twitter can be daunting. It certainly strikes fear and doubt into the minds of many people. The police service across the UK is beginning to emerge into this world. Best of all for cash strapped forces is Twitter is free of charge! Twitter is the best example of where the police are dipping the proverbial toe. It’s very early days as yet but some forces are pioneering the way. They have grasped the concept and given individual officers and departments the opportunity to access Twitter and post comment. Other forces are a lot less so and whilst “sort of” accepting that they will have to go this way eventually they are still stood some way off prodding it gingerly with a long stick fearing it may jump up and bite them.

Some time ago I set up a Twitter account in my name. I’ve had little to no use of it. I’ve amassed an astonishing total of 15 followers who are all friends and known to me. During March this year I stumbled across a Blog about the police written by @ResponsePlod on Twitter. Subsequent surfing led me to think that blogging and tweeting as a police officer could be interesting. I set up my account @TheCustodySgt which can be accessed using the panel on the right. I also set up this blog. I chose to remain anonymous.

Sceptics may look on and say what have you got to hide? Why be anonymous? The police are crown servants and we are a disciplined service. We are subject to rules and regulations that control our conduct both on and off duty. We must never act in a manner likely to bring the office of constable or the police service into disrepute. As a result we have two types of police tweeters. Those who are force supported and those who are anonymous. The official ones are doing a fine job as forces explore in this world. But these officers are subject to scrutiny. They certainly seem to have a degree of flexibility but some seem braver than others. This is to be expected. But overall the bulk of the posts will be somewhat sanitized and toe the party line. An official tweet may say “Attended thieves on. Offenders made off, tracked by dog and found. 3 in custody”. This is great info and any member of the public seeing this will be delighted. An official tweet is unlikely to say “No patrols for thieves on. Offender made good escape. Took crime report. Apologised to victim”.

This sort of behaviour of self promotion is inherent in every aspect of life. When did you fill in an application form and show your weaknesses? When big companies make mistakes they don’t openly admit the truth. They use cleverly worded phrases that divert the real truth and use a “damage control” strategy.

As a police officer I am subject to the same discipline code as any other. I have 20yrs service and I’m not about to compromise myself, my career, my pension (leave it alone please Theresa May) or my force by making inappropriate comments. But as an anonymous tweeter/blogger I can post some bits of information that are perhaps uncomfortable at times… but most definately the truth. Something an official tweeter would find their access removed for. The important point is we both have a place and role in the development of the police in the social media sphere.

One such anonymous blogger/tweeter has recently closed his account and deleted his blogs. @The_Duty_Sgt posted anecdotal blogs about his life and experiences as an officer. I never saw anything contentious or innappropriate. So why has he closed? Because somebody within his force has decided they don’t like it, feel uncomfortable about it and have leant on him. What galls me more than anything else is that there are many published books by current, ex and retired officers. David Copperfield and Tom Ratcliffe are two from the top of my head. Their books are full of anectodal stories, observations and criticism of the police. These are not challenged. The authors are not subject to threats of discipline. What is the difference between the published work and the electronic work? Despite this glaring division @The_Duty_Sgt values his career as do I and has decided that discretion is the greater part of valour. His demise is a sad loss to all.

I am encouraged that so many forces are starting to become involved in social media. Some individual officers and senior officers are on Twitter and posting. Some more than others and the posts seem to become more santized they higher they get. But they are on there so it’s a step in the right direction. A few people in particular worthy of mention are @stuhonline and @SuptPayneWMP. There are also some more front end officers @ResponseSgtWMP @PCDKirkwood and @PCJase733 and @PCStanleyWMP. Anonymous ones worth noting are @InspectorWinter** @ResponsePlod @Spartancop and a spoof account @SirIanBlair

In 44 days since setting up my account I have sent over 1200 tweets and amassed over 300 followers. This goes to show two things.. a) my personal account and private life is very boring b) the public, fellow legal professionals and the media want to see what I have to say from my professional viewpoint. But forces need to understand that Twitter is not a platform for a monologue of posts. It has to be a dialogue… a two way communication. This is put far more eloquently than I here;

The Business Outsider

Love them or hate them they all have a part to play in taking this forward. It is also reassuring to know that ACPO have a lead for Social Media in Policing led by the Deputy Chief Constable of Tayside Gordon Scobbie ( @DCCTayside ). Every officer on a neighbourhood unit knows the problems that come from inappropriate content and messages on Facebook and MSN. They get to deal with it day in day out. It stands to reason that on occasion there will be a disgruntled officer who will post something offensive or inappropriate. The regulations we have are there to deal with that person. As police officers we know these rules and if broken we pay the consequences. I would have no sympathy for an officer acting as such… just as much as I wouldn’t for one arrested for drink driving. The rules are there to deal with offenders. Not to threaten people with.

I see us at the beginning of a long journey. We have taken some good steps in the right direction as a police service nationally. That can only continue. However there will be a few more unneccessary social media fatalities along the way whilst we still have those who fear the truth and fear technology.

The truth is the truth… and it will out in the end. It always does.

** the irony of the final line is tremendous considering what was uncovered with Winter. He was a serial fraudster and not a police officer at all. He now resides courtesy of HMP.

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11 thoughts on “Social Media and the Police”

  1. Intelligence and thought through piece, as one of the outsiders looking in at the police trying to get to grips with it – I think you are making far more progress than others in the public sector and this should be commended.

    From my own experience it is the fear in many IT departments and senior officers that has held back wider adoption in forces, and sadly it is often born of ignorance.

    But am optimistic you are right it is a journey and there is progress being made by those will to embrace this media.

    Good Luck.

  2. I find it difficult to engage a police officer either in an official or unofficial capacity without being affraid that he may somehow be able to do me some harm. I am outspoken on Twitter about my dislike for what the police have become & that is likely to make me a target for someone on the force who doesn’t like it.

    I would say that I am also annonymous but a little effort from someone would easily put a name & address to me so being outspoken about the police is a bit of a dangerous game.

    You seem to be implying that there is an important role for the police on social media. I have no idea why you think that would be met with anything but anger or disappointment from other users because quite franlkly only a fool would trust the police.

    The general view of reasonably intelligent people is that the police no longer work for the people but are there to raise stealth revenue from us mainly through motoring offences. I have said this on Twitter but here goes, “When a person sees a police car & immediately feels as though he or she has recently escaped from Colditz, then it’s safe to say that we are teetering on the brink of a police state”.

    If you want to be a Twiiter user, why even mention that you are a policeman? You are a human being & have just as much right to express yourself as the rest of us. By announcing yourself as a policeman you are automatically censoring the tweets of your followers & instead of getting this dialoge you crave, you are getting a watered down impression of what people really want to say.

    In case anyone reading this thinks that this is a personal vendetta against the police from a disgruntled offender, I will just say that I have neither a criminal record nor have I had even a single speeding ticket since 1986.

    The other more frightening worry about the police is the fact that through their association with govenment & big business it is fairly obvious who they are there to defend. The police are armed to the teeth & trained to hurt people & that is what many of them are doing right now with relish whilst defending the Corporations from the people of this country.

    You may see yourself as a bit of a maverick or perhaps a nice guy but at the end of the day you are a policeman & whilst ever you are one I would suggest that nobody trusts you.

    1. I find it difficult to engage a police officer either in an official or unofficial capacity without being affraid that he may somehow be able to do me some harm. I am outspoken on Twitter about my dislike for what the police have become & that is likely to make me a target for someone on the force who doesn’t like it.

      It is a shame you feel that way. I don’t know the full circumstances that have led to your disaffection but it is a sad indictment when you feel you cannot trust the police at all. 

      I would say that I am also annonymous but a little effort from someone would easily put a name & address to me so being outspoken about the police is a bit of a dangerous game.

      I’m in the same boat. I’m anon but I’m not so naive to think I’m untraceable. 

      You seem to be implying that there is an important role for the police on social media. I have no idea why you think that would be met with anything but anger or disappointment from other users because quite franlkly only a fool would trust the police.

      I think SM plays a key role for the police in engaging with their community in a different way. We have to explore new avenues that bring police and communities together for th greater good. You do make a sweeping statement though that lumps all police officers together. Whilst I accept there are good police and bad police tarring us all with the same brush is simply stereotyping. We are all individuals with a role as are you. 

      The general view of reasonably intelligent people is that the police no longer work for the people but are there to raise stealth revenue from us mainly through motoring offences. I have said this on Twitter but here goes, “When a person sees a police car & immediately feels as though he or she has recently escaped from Colditz, then it’s safe to say that we are teetering on the brink of a police state”.

      I think you exaggerate and over dramatise this point. Speed cameras and the like are unpopular. That said there is a very simple way to avoid them. Drive at the speed limit. I find it odd as a person of reasonable intelligence with no criminal history that seeing a police car makes you believe the Gestapo are breathing down your neck? 

      If you want to be a Twiiter user, why even mention that you are a policeman? You are a human being & have just as much right to express yourself as the rest of us. By announcing yourself as a policeman you are automatically censoring the tweets of your followers & instead of getting this dialoge you crave, you are getting a watered down impression of what people really want to say.

      I am on twitter. I identify myself as an officer for the very reason that this allows you, as now, to converse with me on such issues. There would be little point if you later found out I was a milkman?

      The other more frightening worry about the police is the fact that through their association with govenment & big business it is fairly obvious who they are there to defend. The police are armed to the teeth & trained to hurt people & that is what many of them are doing right now with relish whilst defending the Corporations from the people of this country.

      The law of the land dictates that only reasonable force should be used. Police officers are not out on duty looking for somebody to give a good kicking to… surely you are not implying this?

      You may see yourself as a bit of a maverick or perhaps a nice guy but at the end of the day you are a policeman & whilst ever you are one I would suggest that nobody trusts you.

      Certainly not a maverick. Nice guy? I try to be. I believe in honesty above all and if I fly in the face of policy by making a fair decision then maybe I could be seen as a maverick internally. I think you are wrong with the final part of your sentence. Maybe by saying “you” you mean the police and not me personally? Either way I have spent 20yra in the police and at least from my experience I find a lot of people do trust me. As a result I have a duty to ensure that trust is not abused. 

  3. I went in quite lightly about the police brutality thing because I didn’t want to ramble on too much but there is no question that it is a problem. I guess that we are of a similar age so, like me you will remember when people did trust the police & have some respect for them.

    Nowadays they are elitist arrogant stormtroopers by comparison, with far to many powers. As an organisation it is definitely biased in favour of state rather than the citizen & I would imagine that a police officer who doesn’t feel that way inclined is quite out of step with the majority.

    It would take a lot to soften my attitude towards the police because of a combination of what i have witnessed & what I have heard from others over the past few years.

    The crowning factor in my suspicion of police on social media is the absolutely disgraceful use of it to make an example of people during the riots.

    People are doing hard time in prison for what for all intents & purposes was the act of exercising their mistaken beief in the right to free speech.

    A couple of cans of Special Brew & a laptop in front of you these days can cost you four years of your liberty thanks to police involvment in social media.

  4. I was one of the first ‘official’ West Midlands Police Twitter users and at first I just put out the usual stuff along the lines of a press release. Over time, people began to ask questions or make comments and there’s only two things to do. Ignore or respond

    I chose to respond. I answered those questions people wanted to know (Do you carry a gun? Do you all eat doughnuts? Do your heads go right to the top of those helmets?) and they appreciated the ease with which they could interact with their local police.

    My followers grew, simply because people were interested in the human side of policing. I wasn’t anonymous – my face was on the avatar. People in the street recognised me and others sought my advice.

    Then I became a Police Federation representative – our equivalent to a union rep. This is a purely voluntary post, supporting our officers in dealing with welfare and discipline issues. It opened up a new stream of followers – other Fed reps and police officers from across the country.

    Recently, West Midlands Police issued a new social media policy. On the whole, I agree with the ethos behind it, but as I wrote on my own blog (http://johndehayes.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/a-police-spokesman-was-heard-to-say/) I felt it difficult to continue as an ‘official’ blogger.

    Since I became unofficial, I’ve continued to respect Police Regulations and will not say anything that would bring my force into disrepute. However, I can now express my own opinion on issues that affect me, the public I serve and the members of the Police Federation I represent.

    Social media has a huge part to play in engagement, but those using it may have to be trusted. I’ll paraphrase a comment I made on Twitter – We’re trusted with guns – we’re trusted with batons – we’re trusted with Taser. Just trust us with social media!

    1. John we have come at this from different angles. I’m anon and am being pressured to “come out! The problem I have is that by doing so I believe I will lose some of my identity. I’m not naive enough to think I will remain anonymous forever but I’d not have it any other way whilst it lasts. I am a great believer in TRUTH. No matter how difficult a pill to swallow truth sometimes is it is by far the best way to go. With the sensitive nature of the work we do we sometimes have to desensitise posts so that individuals cannot be identified or operations/investigations compromised. This is fully understandable and proper.

      However, whenever I hear words like “reputation” it fills me with sadness because this invariably means lies.. economy of the truth as best. A damage control strategy. Organisations are afraid of the truth. It will be a bold force who abandons this nonsense and simply tells it how it is… if they ever do they will have my ultimate respect.

      Until then the irony that we arrest and interview people looking for the truth, expecting it in fact, but when the shoe is on the other foot…. ?

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