Institutionally the police have fallen hopelessly behind the average citizen in the way that they communicate. Police need to communicate online as well as offline at all ranks with people in communities that they serve. I am a strong supporter of the police, but have been frustrated over the last couple of years by police senior management’s unwillingness to engage systematically online. Hopefully one good thing to come out of the riots a belated engagement with modern online media and strong leadership signals from ACPO and the Chiefs themselves.
Let’s take a sober look at the tactical and strategic pictures of police use of social media. After they got over the initial shock the police seemed to make reasonable use of tactical intelligence acquired from social networks. Most likely there were small police intelligence cells attached to command centres reading open source traffic and using existing intercept powers acting properly under judicial authority. This could have included specific messages intercepts and possibly traffic data from network operators. Away from the recent riots I also understand that the police make heavy use of Facebook when trying to solve serious youth crime such as murder.
After the fact, these tactics are to be expected of a modern police. But the police have missed a huge strategic trick by not being part of online conversations prior to recent events. Imagine a beat police officer not going into the most popular cafe in the area where everyone goes for a chat because they are forbidden by management from talking to people if coffee is involved. Instead they hide a listening device in a ketchup bottle. The institutional police refusal to engage with social media is about as daft. Police need to be part of local conversations online as well as on the street. Not just intercepting messages in intelligence cells, or piecing together networks after a murder but out there on local websites, on Facebook, on twitter, BBM on a daily basis using these media as regular citizens do. Then they can get forewarning of what might happen and influence people to prevent them going down the wrong path – as they do with such skill in offline conversations on the street.
I run a local website in Kings Cross and a small business Talk About Local that helps people use the modern web to find a voice online for their communities. In Kings Cross, an area that has had the most severe crime problems, we use the website to support the police in their local communication. We help police get messages out and they monitor the site to see what is bothering local people. When a civil servant I worked on a wide range of sensitive security issues and am well used to an ‘institutional security’ mindset.
In many talks and seminars with the police and security bureaucrats over the last three years I have talked through the benefits for the police of being part of online conversations (see below for a list of things). Because I can show practical use of the web to tackle crime in a community and am not a raving social media evangelist I get good hearing. There are some wonderful examples of police good practice out there, driven by individuals or small teams within forces. Look at what Nick Keane is doing at NPIA, DCC Gordon Scobbie at Tayside, Supt. Mark Payne in Wolverhampton, PC Ed Rogerson in North Yorks, Amanda Coleman at GMP and more. Jeremy Crump (late of NPIA) has a good post on the increase in people following the few police twitter accounts in the last week.
But despite the efforts of the pioneers, we don’t see a widespread, systematic adoption of social media across the spectrum by forces determined to engage with local conversations across all media. There’s a some institutional use of twitter, but few forces are willing to work out safe ways for officers to use Facebook in the communities they serve. And I haven’t yet seen police use of BBM.
Senior police officers in two of the largest forces have privately given me the same message: the most police senior management hasn’t hitherto been interested. There may be enthusiasm, even desperation by officers in the grass roots to use these media in the community but when you get to the top you are told to back off. One senior officer in a force that has recently had riots was asked by their Chief last year ‘Why are you wasting your time with that [social media]?’ In another large urban force recently with rioting problems I was told by a senior officer that ‘there’s people at the top who don’t like this’. In top-down environments like the police such leadership attitudes will always limit social media use to limited experiments and prevent widespread engagement.
It’s sad that media comment is now dominated by talk of interrupting social media networks at times of crisis (I suspect that the police already have powers to do this anyway) not how the police themselves can use them to prevent future incidents. The recent crisis might finally give the leading individuals the leverage they need to bring about systemic change. I’d love to see my local police taking part in my local online community and ACPO and Chief Constables themselves encouraging and supporting their rank and file officers in doing so. It isn’t rocket science any more and can be done quickly and cheaply.
Here’s a few things i have done with the police to help them understand modern media. Lectured at the NPIA summit at Ryton (audience over 100) , presented at an ACPO conference (no Chiefs deigned fit to come, audience about 50), spoken at a summit of Met police press officers at the invitation of the Chief Press Officer, organised an online surgery for Islington Police, presented for Greater Manchester Police on the hyperlocal web, taken a seminar on the local web at West Midlands Police. I have been on and off a member of my local Safer Neighbourhood Panel since its inception. I have been a victim of crime countless times in Kings Cross and always pass relevant information to the police.
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