Policing: The Social Media Bandwagon?

The Social Media Bandwagon
The SM Bandwagon!

2011 could be seen by many as the year the police service finally embraced social networking… But, in the clamour to climb aboard the social media bandwagon, does the service really understand what they want to achieve, are they getting the best from the technology and most importantly, are they actually using it correctly?

Back in October 2010, to a great hail of publicity, Greater Manchester Police used their GMP Twitter Account to give the public an idea of the workload officers face (see here). The project was deemed by many to be a “great success” and if nothing else, it certainly caught the public’s interest; some 12,000 people were following the GMP feed at one point.

As GMP were subsequently nominated in The Golden Twits, an annual award scheme that aims to celebrate the most active and respected twitter users, you would like to think their efforts were worthwhile. The GMP experiment was probably, although unintentionally, also a major reason behind the subsequent, all be it belated rush by other forces, all now desperate to go where most previously feared to tread.

The role played by social networks during last year’s London Riots was probably the final important and motivational message to policing (no pun intended); social networks offer immense power to those who chose to embrace and utilise the technology.

While rioters took to the underground paths of BlackBerry Messenger to organize, the highly spreadable mediums of Twitter and Facebook have shown to be the perfect platforms for mobilizing cleanup organizers and followers in the early aftermath of the rioting…(mashable.com)

But despite the role of Blackberry Messenger (et al) in mustering the looting thugs, social media also played a major part in the mayhem aftermath. The more SM savvy amongst us can hardly have missed the popularity of the anti-riot Operation Cup of Tea campaign. The idea, created by former Big Brother contestant Sam Pepper, was one of the top trending terms on Twitter during the riots (see here) but also; it was probably instrumental in persuading many young people not to get involved in the riots.

How good could that have been for community engagement? Imagine if the initiative had been thought up by an officer in a neighbourhood policing team?

Unsurprisingly but also unconnected, at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) annual conference in August 2011, Richard Crompton of Lincolnshire Police, endorsed the ACPO stance on police use of social media (see here). He urged the service to take the digital highway and exploit networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Mr Crompton, has long been an advocate of social media and is reputed to be the first chief constable to tweet and encourages his officers and staff to “take the plunge”.

In September 2011 South Yorkshire Police in Barnsley used Twitter to report on all their activities in one 12-hour period (see here) and more recently, Staffordshire Police used Twitter and Facebook to report on their activities during Black Friday, one of the busiest party nights of the year (see here).

Thankfully we have now mostly moved on from those initial fears of using social media platforms in the public sector. It seems an age since, the probes into police posts on Facebook by Northamptonshire Police back in 2007, or staff at a Nottinghamshire hospital getting banned from using Facebook whilst at work, also in that year. However, despite all this recent activity and the belated ‘love affair’ with the technology; many in public service, not least the police, are still (wrongly) running scared of social media.

The main reason I suspect is probably due to actions (rightly) being taken against those who either, use the technology to do unlawful things or, simply use it in a manner incompatible with their professional position or role.

One police officer was sacked and more than 150 faced disciplinary action over their behaviour on Facebook in a three-year period, figures have shown…(bbc.c.uk)

But that lack of professional integrity and/or that inherent personal fear and general misunderstanding of the technology, transcends a myriad of differing public posts or positions these days, not just the police (see below).

Scottish teachers are being warned that their use of social networking sites could put their careers at risk…(bbc.co.uk)

One of the fundamental reasons behind many of these ‘fears’ (at least in police terms), along with several of the personal misdemeanours above no doubt, was subsequently identified by HM Inspector of Constabulary Roger Baker… 

We found a significant blurring between people’s professional lives on social networking sites and their private lives which may be in the public domain and private lives which probably should remain extremely private… (Roger BakerHMIC)

Gordon Scobbie, the Deputy Chief Constable of Tayside Police (and UK police lead for Social Media) has previously addressed audiences of international law enforcers, urging them to embrace social media and “take a leap of faith.”

Your organisation has staff who want to do more for the community on your behalf – it’s time to take the brakes off social media and let them get on with it! …the opportunities social media offers outweigh the risks…(Gordon Scobbie)

In September 2011 Superintendent Mark Payne from West Midlands Police attended the SMILE conference in America and outlined his Force’s social media experience. In his address to delegates, “Tweeting from the Frontline: Social Media and Public Order” he highlighted the police use of social media during the summer riots.

The SMILE conference, which is organised annually by connectedcops.net and lawscommunications.com, has pioneered the adoption of social media by many law enforcement agencies across the world, for public outreach, crime prevention, and forensics. So all the support and drive for mass use of the technology within the police service would appear to be in place, but what of the realities?

During the past twelve months or so of observing police Twitter and Facebook accounts, they generally fall into one of two broad categories; corporate accounts and the individual or personal accounts. For the most part (with a few notable exceptions), those of a corporate nature or indeed, operated in the name of some individual of ACPO or senior rank tend to be bland, uninformative and filled with little more than PR type rhetoric, most of which is actually dated. They are hardly a good example of supposedly fast-moving interaction, which is the whole ethos of the technology, let alone evidence of any worthwhile public engagement.

Conversely, many of those operating on a more individual basis (and I suspect with more of a free rein) tend to experience greater public interaction. Many of these are being used by officers as a modern tool to communicate with the community they police, a more immediate method of engaging with a wider audience and in many respects doing what good cops always did in the past; actually talk to those they serve.

Whether or not the British police service are destined to fully get to grips with Social Media any time soon is still a big question. There is some way to go before cops hold a good understanding of what is acceptable/unacceptable and, they still need the confidence, that only their bosses can provide; the knowledge that they won’t be disciplined for saying something out of turn.

They need to be confident that failing to tow the corporate line, or making some senior officer look silly because of an organisational or individual mistake, isn’t going to land them in hot water. Without this full understanding of the platform’s capabilities and the correct levels of training, guidance and support, many police officers are likely to continue in their failing when trying to fully embrace all the undoubted benefits of social media. The biggest loosers from this are the public.

No matter how things progress, there is one thing that is for certain; as Bernard Rix, a consultant with 20+ yrs experience advising on police improvement points out – 2012 will be a huge year for UK policing