Web Cops?

Right then, it appears we have caused a bit of a stir by saying that we are thinking about having somebody in post to try and expand our use of social media. The interview, given by ACC Scobbie, has been widely reported as West Midlands Police employing a ‘Cyber Cop’ type person. http://bit.ly/8uTBcU

The media seem to be under the impression that somebody is going to explode out of an unsuspecting critic’s laptop, cuffs in hand to march the offender off to the station. I can fully understand the concerns people have expressed if that actually was our intention, but as I was the officer who came up with the idea, I can say categorically, that it wasn’t.

People may occasionally doubt the intellectual capacity of police officers, but I can safely say that if we were planning to launch a spy in cyber space, we wouldn’t put out a press release and conduct interviews about it!

The idea is really very simple. Police are often criticised for being difficult to get hold of, or not listening to what local people are saying. We try all kinds of ways to communicate with the public, meetings, newsletters, traditional media, talking to people we meet and anything else we can think of. There is clearly a huge amount of conversation taking place online and, where people are talking about policing or crime issues, we want to be part of the conversation.

Until recently, our officers were prevented from accessing the internet at work. We have recognised that situation is a bit ridiculous in the modern world, and now all our officers have access.

The role that we are thinking about will not be a police officer. It will be somebody who understands the world of social media, and who can help us develop the ideas that we have, and make our officers more accessible to people.

I can say with absolute certainty that this is not about jumping on people who are criticising us. We sometimes get things wrong, even when we are trying to do the right thing. Policing is a hugely complex business, and it is inevitable, that we will upset some people. If this is the case, we want to hear about it, warts and all. At least if we know, we will have opportunity to put it right, or do better next time.

I have been actively engaged in the social media world for a while now, as a police officer. I have been warmly welcomed by most, some have queried what I am doing there, but many people have responded really positively. I firmly believe that if we go ahead and employ somebody to help us engage with people online, it will help us to get closer to people, and it is the right thing to do.

I would welcome your thoughts……….

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13 Responses to “Web Cops?”


  1. 1 Lauri Stevens January 15, 2010 at 2:48 am

    Hi Mark,

    “People may occasionally doubt the intellectual capacity of police officers”, surely not! hah. At least never at West Midlands. In fact, hiring a “web cop” as you put it, is one smart move.

    I honestly think the negative reaction (and let’s face it, the blog it appeared on is hardly worth your energy) might be due to the choice of words in the job description. It sorta sounded sleuth-like, whether or not you intended it to. But no matter. Those of us who aren’t paranoid, didn’t read it like that.

    Your’s is a realtively new idea, however, at least a couple PD’s have done this. Boca Raton PD hired a social media manager a year ago. Montreal Police Service is in the process of training a newly identified officer in social media right now, to do exactly what you are describing with perhaps a bit more on the investigative and youth officer thrown in. See http://connectedcops.net/?p=453 for that story.

    The work you’re doing in social media at WMPolice (in spite of the fact that you’re STILL not following ME on Twitter :-) ) is truly exemplary and visionary. No police agency anywhere is doing it exactly right, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because there is no script. You, and your LE colleagues, are writing the script and it’s really an interesting read.

    You know what they say about pioneers? You have to take a few arrows in the back.

    Keep up the fabulous work,
    Lauri Stevens @lawscomm

  2. 2 Christa M. Miller January 15, 2010 at 4:46 am

    I think the inherently “scary” thing about a law enforcement agency opening itself up to public comment/criticism is the visual it brings to mind: a riot squad laying down its shields and weapons and leaving itself open to a mob!

    No police officer wants to be that vulnerable, and it does seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Yet the act itself of laying down arms may be the thing that disarms the mob. Certainly some would take advantage of the situation. But others might be willing to listen… as long as they heard a message consistent with the laying down of arms, including a solid explanation for why. And continued efforts at communication thereafter.

    As for being part of the conversation, it strikes me that many officers understand the listening part, but do not understand (as well) the talking part. They’re too used to allowing a media officer or administrator do that. So they stick to personal stuff… and (at least here in the US) get themselves in trouble.

    IMO the most important role for an employee like the one you mention is to help officers tease out the kinds of things to blog or tweet or update status about. Show the public what they do without leaving themselves too vulnerable… the human behind the badge, in context of the force as a whole. Difficult line to walk, but not impossible.

    As for the employee… would you look for someone from within policing, or someone from the business world, who understands communication strategy? Someone local to the community, or someone from outside? Or create a “team” of sorts, for a more collaborative effort?

  3. 3 William January 15, 2010 at 10:07 am

    > the blog it appeared on is hardly worth your energy

    That’s unworthy. It’s very important to listen to these concerns, even if you’re less sensitive to these matters than the “bigbrotherwatch” authors.

    They offer an articulate early warning sign of the real danger of loss of consent which makes policing far harder and more disagreable task.

  4. 4 William January 15, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Mark: this strikes me as a good initiative, but it is clearly potentially controversial. It’s all about how you do it. You did the right thing to steer the conversation back here.

    What will enrage online punters is if the force uses public money to go online and tell them why they’re wrong. OTOH, if the force engages online, is more easily contacted, and is responsive in a cost-effective way, youre on to a winner I reckon.

    For example: I wrote to Holborn police last May when I was being pursued by Orange after a mobile phone fraud. I’ve yet to receive a reply. An exchange of emails, the ability to put a comment on their blog, some sort of online engagement would have been much better.

    Two startup outfits I’ve come across who really understand this are thinkpublic (service designers) and The Dextrous Web (web service suppliers) both linked form my idealgovernment.com blog. There are doubtless others, including plenty of smart freelancers.

    Good luck with this. If what you first encounter includes an outpouring of rage and frustration dont be put off. If the engagement becomes constructive then you’ll have achieved a lot already. I think if you approach it as culture change for the WM force by stealth you’re on the right track. But it wont be easy!

  5. 6 Phil Tonks January 15, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Communication with police at whatever level is vitally important. I happen to believe that West Midlands Police, for example, have got it wrong with the “one number fits all” option (although there are obviously operationally good reasons for this).
    Coupled with media-led examples such as the stigma attached to mobile speed cameras, the modern day police service, in my view, is in danger of aleinating some parts of society that might otherwise be supportive of the police.
    Social media can help, in this respect, to bring some parts of society and the police service together. Granted, it’s still only a small part of the wider jigsaw, but it’s growing.
    I’ve never met Chief Inspector Payne, but I consider him a friend on Twitter, and like everyone else on my Twitter and Facebook pages, it’s good to keep in touch!

  6. 7 Andy Wake January 15, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Mark,

    Completely appropriate that you should expand the team with a social media specialist just as many others in the public and private sectors are now quite rightly doing. Listening and responding to people’s views both good and bad has always been an essential part of any good comms strategy and as people increasingly use online channels to discuss and get their news it’s only right that the police service has an effective presence.

    I think WMP are by far the most forward thinking force in the UK in relation to social media and its refreshing that you so obviously appreciate the additional policing opportunities that various online platforms can provide for getting serious stuff like advice, appeals, and major incident bulletins out swiftly to an online audience. It can and will make a difference to the people you serve and I’m sure many other forces will want to learn from the expertise you’re developing.

    Best of luck,

    Andy

  7. 8 graphiclunarkid January 15, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    “Police are often criticised for being difficult to get hold of, or not listening to what local people are saying.”

    In the world you describe, where people *want* to be close to the police, the idea of someone from the force engaging in conversation with them online makes sense. However that’s not the world in which everyone in the UK lives. Some people have no confidence that the police can be trusted and want to stay as far away from them as possible. If the police start wading into their online conversations they might not appreciate it.

    As William says above, be very careful about how you approach this.

  8. 9 Freeman Dave January 15, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    I live in a Police State, CCTV, peaceful demonstrators being batoned, gassed ….
    Police support for politicians and gangsters ……..
    Masons …….
    Common Purpose grads………

    the whole communistic system is rotten.

    Do what your masters tell you

  9. 10 Dave Taylor January 16, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    It’s great news that the police are starting to engage in Social Media and I’ve been following you on Twitter since I heard about it. (I also still have to get that email off to you about the film, One Day).

    What I feel is important is that whoever gets this role is allowed to operate away from spin and PR. If the police can openly admit they made a mistake and do their best to rectify it I think you’ll find that as a whole the public will be supportive. Of course, the press, bloggers and the media in general will rewrite that admittance in a negative light but hopefully the general public will quickly learn that there is another side to the argument and seek it out.

    Due to your line of work you will always have detractors but providing a way for people to contact you and a way of the police keeping them informed can only be a good thing.

    Well done.

  10. 11 Anorak January 19, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    “There has never been a tool granted to the police that they haven’t subsequently gone on to abuse. ANPR is just another example. Whether it’s pepper spraying pensioners for parking on yellow lines or spying on innocent people with radio controlled drones; you can depend on our modern British police farce to keep pushing the boundaries of the outrageous.

    Posted by: Bob | 01/19/2010 at 02:12 PM”

    See more at

    http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/home/2010/01/anpr-cameras-used-to-target-innocent-motorists.html


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