Police, Social Media and the future

I recently had the great honour to be invited to present to the first UK policing TEDx event. It was a fabulous event organised by @DedicatedPeeler and kindly hosted by Lancashire Police.

As an anonymous tweeter and blogger I find that I regularly have to pinch myself when I realise how far my influence has reached. I am forever grateful to all those forward thinking, open minded colleagues and senior officers who have sought to put trust in me whether they know who I am or just simply trust me. Thank you.

My presentation was about the police and our use of social media into the future. The presentation began with me wearing a bag over my head. The reason why will be obvious as you read on.

Good afternoon..

You may be wondering why I’m stood before you with a paper bag over my head? Well for the last 5yrs I’ve been involved in using social media as an anonymous cop on Twitter.. originally The Custody Sgt and when I left custody it changed to Sgt TCS. As an anonymous tweeter and blogger hiding my identity from my followers has been essential. To that end, when I was invited to speak at this event I had to devise a plan that would allow me to speak but also protect my identity. The bag idea was born.

Social media is huge. The amount of data that is shared and posted on social media is beyond comprehension. On Twitter alone there are 500m tweets per day! This is a huge amount of information that we can tap into but it could also overwhelm us.

Fears of information overload are well documented. Respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, was possibly the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. He described how the modern world was overwhelming people with data and that this overabundance was both “confusing and harmful”. However, Gessner never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers so what would he know? He died in 1565. His warnings referred to the unmanageable flood of information that was to be unleashed by the printing press.

History tells us that new technology will be received by us, (quick look around).. yes us, the older generation, with distrust. At the same time we will look back fondly on our younger days as a more wholesome and healthy time. In the same way we are more likely to rely on our known and trusted methods of doing things.

When the telephone became common place in the police I can imagine people who called to report a matter being told to come in to the police station to make a formal report.

On a recent incident I noticed a comment by a fellow Sgt who had been communicating with the Met stating in disbelief that ‘the Met no longer have fax machines’.. followed by several exclamation marks.

We have a tendency to fall back on known and trusted methods and we like to operate in our familiar comfort zone. Every force in the country has social media channels. Predominantly Facebook and Twitter. These are both amazing engagement tools and ones we are using very well. But before we pat ourselves on the back we need to look a little closer. There are 43 forces on Twitter in England and Wales. 19 of them have in their bio “this is not monitored 24/7”. Every single one of them says ‘don’t report crime here.. call 999 or 101’.

We have chosen to open a line of communication with the public and have then been conditional about how we will and won’t use it. We have accepted it as a means of contact but then when we are contacted we refer users back to traditional methods. Our bio’s make it very clear we are not really looking at it… or certainly not as much as we should be. It’s a bit like taxing and insuring a car, filling it with fuel and then walking everywhere.

We have opened up a channel allowing the public to communicate with us.. and then created barriers that make it less effective than it could be.

This bag is protecting my identity. As my role with social media on a national/international stage has increased my anonymity has become a barrier. It’s well known that good communication is the foundation of any successful relationship but it’s our nonverbal communication—our facial expressions, gestures, eye contact and posture that speak the loudest. This bag is a barrier to a lot of that. I’ve intentionally put a barrier in the way that restricts my ability to be the best I can be… but there is a solution. Remove the bag.

[bag removed and thrown to side of room]
Without the bag I can communicate with you to full effect. When the police across the country opened up their social media channels they gained followers. People wanted to talk with us. We went to meet the public where they are but then built barriers between us. What were we thinking?

So what can we do about it? It has to start by giving social media the same importance as all our other contact methods. It has to be monitored and pro-actively used 24/7. It can be and should be a reporting tool for many matters. Twitter and Facebook both have the ability for private messaging. Reporting complex matters via social media may be seen as impractical but ask yourself a question. Why not? We accept a letter or email from the public detailing a complex matter so why not a private message via social media? We can’t get away from the need for face to face contact eventually but why can’t the starting point of contact be social media? Many forces currently have private message options on Facebook turned off… we need to turn them on.

Skype, FaceTime and other applications allow for face to face video calls. Forces need to build this ability into their call management infrastructure. Staff currently answering phones will find that video calls will also become common place.

Live streaming video applications such as Periscope allow us to give insights into the work we do as it happens. It also allows users to stream live footage of an incident to us allowing police crisis managers access to greater information with which to evaluate our operational response. This may be further enhanced by apps such as 999Eye and the ongoing work with Project Athena. Yet these projects are trapped in our traditional process of research, evaluation, pilots and the big one, the procurement process. We try but the likelihood is our best efforts in this model will be obsolete well before they hit the pilot. Other applications like Blab will allow us to have online discussions with partners that can be viewed by the public.

Forces need to start proactively interrogating social media streams for information about their area to reduce and detect crime. Not only post incident but also as it happens. Regularly scanning the different channels for keywords, images, video footage and emerging trends. In some cases this could lead to an early response to matters unfolding on social media before we take calls via traditional contact routes.

Corporate communicatons teams, instead of servicing the newspapers, radio and TV will act independently. Many forces already have followings that are larger than the circulation of their local newspaper or local radio audiences. Forces will take ownership of their own story and publish on their own channels. They will have control of their own message and talk directly to their communities without the traditional reliance on other outlets.

With so many social media channels it is impossible for the public to expect the police to have a presence on every one of them. However, where we choose to have a presence, we should strive to be the best we can be and use it to its full effect. We must increase our engagement and maximize conversation opportunities with our communities building trust and confidence as we go. We should aim to become the trusted ‘go to’ source for all information about our area that is predominantly crime or public safety orientated. The ethos of such pages or platforms will be to strive to become a ‘community page/channel with a focus on xyz Police’.

We have spent many years talking about ‘partnership’ working and have established cooperation with many other government agencies and the public, private and voluntary sectors. Nowhere along the way have we really, really, invested and been open in building a partnership with the public. The public must be at the heart of everything we do. Wider and more intelligent use of social media will help us to achieve that.

I recently saw an episode of a programme called ‘Babylon’. One of the media people in this program said ‘We’re dumping the journalists and asking the public for a date’. This is a good line and illustrates where we should be heading. We own our story, we control our own media and we can communicate directly with local people.

We need to meet the public where they are. That means embracing new and emerging communication channels and refusing to be constrained by barriers we create ourselves. We need to remove the bag and allow our voice to heard loud and clear.

Thank you




5 thoughts on “Police, Social Media and the future”

  1. It would be very nice but the biggest handicap is network security and bandwidth. I tried to get a company going that would train police officers from outside the police onto the police network using webinars. It simply wasn’t possible to get around these two issues.

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