Posts Tagged 'social media'

From Hard times to Hyperlocal

It will not have escaped your attention that the country is experiencing some financial turmoil at present. The news in the last 24 hours has been dominated by a claim that 10,000 police officers will be lost over the coming year. I have no idea if these numbers are true (I’m not sure anybody knows yet), but it is safe to say that in years to come there will be less police officers, less fire officers, less local authority employees , in fact less of lots of people employed to look after us.

I claim no insider knowledge here, I have a good idea what is going on within policing, but a combination of common sense, and watching the news leads me to anticipate a reduction in these posts. Essentially for any organisation, people are the most expensive resource, and therefore any significant reduction in funds is likley to see less people on the ground. We are all trying to make sure that we preserve as many frontline staff as possible, but we will need to explore new ways of delivering our service in these hard times.

One of the difficulties facing policing is that we are often seen as the service of last resort. You will have heard the 999 tapes where people ring us up because they have lost their house keys or can’t find their cat. All services are going to have to take a long, hard look at what they have the capacity to deal with.

I can remember as a young Sergeant volunteering to go to a job where a group of kids had reported seeing a snake. Overcome by a feeling of gallantry, I decided to go and save the kids from what I was sure would be a small grass snake. On my arrival, the snake was about 7 feet long, bright yellow, and not at all intimidated by me and my extendable metal baton. I ended up having to phone Dudley Zoo, and a man (who I later found out was Mark O’Shea, a famous reptile wrestler from TV) turned up, muttering something about it not being dangerous. He duly dispatched the snake into a bag and the world was safe again.

This illustrates my point, whose job is it to deal with escaped snakes? Who says that police have to deal with lost property or take in stray dogs? I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but we are going to have to find ways of helping people to help themselves in some areas where they would previously have rung us.

This is where we come on to hyperlocal sites. My view is simple, all public services ought to be reading, and engaging with hyperlocal sites in areas that they serve. They are an incredibly important method of talking to our communities and finding out what their priorites are, what they are worried about, what they want us to do, and what they are happy for us not to do on their behalf. They already exist, and they are just waiting for us to engage with them.

I would go a step further and say that public bodies ought to be actively encouraging communities to set up hyperlocal sites. There are some fantastic examples of  communities making a real difference to their local environment through this medium. Will Perrin from talk about local is well known for his work in this area. He talks about a community who were fed up of dog mess being left on the pavements outside their houses. They came up with the ingenious idea of making little flags branded with the name of their local authority. They then planted these flags in every dog ‘deposit’ they could find, took a picture, and posted it online! Needless to say, it did not take long for the local authority to get it’s act together and clean the streets on a much more regular basis.

When a child loses her cat, they would have a much better chance of finding it if a picture of Tiddles was posted on a hyperlocal site covering their postcode than they would have from asking a police officer to find it. The same is true of a whole host of other issues that communities can actually resolve for themselves, without going to their local public bodies. The local bodies responsible for that area have a new way of engaging with, and having conversations their communities.

Once these sites are in existence, we can then talk to them, help them, and of course take flak from them when we aren’t getting it right. If you click here it will take you through to a simple tool which enables you to search for a hyperlocal site in your area. Any neighbourhood police team, housing association, parent/teachers association or any one of the other public bodies working in an area with a hyperlocal site should be talking to them. If there isn’t one on your area, try and work with the community to set one up, there are loads of people out there happy to help and advise.

I do not pretent that these sites are the solution to all of our problems, or that there will not be really difficult decisions to make moving forwards. Nontheless when we make decisions about local services, we ought to do so from a position where we have listened to local people and allowed them to influence us.

As  a Superintendent in Wolverhampton, I will be regularly reading the excellent WV11 and hopefully making the odd contribution. I would urge all of my police colleagues to find their local sites, read them, and engage with them.

As ever, I value your thoughts…

Policing:Further adventures on Twitter

Over the past 24 hours, the Local Policing Unit from Birmingham South have been tweeting live incidents and their officers’ responses to them. Armed only with a hashtag (#bsp24) and a new twitter account, they have ventured out into the world of social media. Judging by the excellent feedback they have received, I am sure they will be  extremely pleased with the results.

Two weeks ago, I spoke to the Commander from Birmingham South, Phil Kay, and discussed the idea with him. He is really forward thinking and had already set the ball rolling with his communications team. At that point they had around 70 people following them on Twitter. By the end of the 24 hour output they had well over 1000.

I have blogged before about the need for police forces to engage more pro-actively in the area of social media, and the example above really does illustrate the point.  The communities of South Birmingham clearly want to engage with and talk to the Police. The Commander and his staff now have the ability to communicate with 1000 more people than they had at this point two weeks ago, and perhaps more importantly (and this is the key strength of social media), the community has a way to talk back.

Throughout my years in the Police, we have always struggled to get some communities to engage with us. We labelled those communities as ‘hard to reach.’ It turns out that they were not that hard to reach, we were just reaching in the wrong places. Social media platforms provide us with an absolutely fantastic opportunity to have conversations with people, to recognise their problems and to tell them what we are doing about them.

In the 18 months or so since I first blogged about this issue, the situation in UK policing has improved significantly, there are now some fantastic examples of officers using social media in new and innovative ways. However there are still large areas where there is no social media presence, where officers are actively prevented from engaging by force policies which have simply not caught up with the technological advances of the last decade.

There are now hundreds of officers up and down the country using social media. To my knowledge no riots have been triggered, no officers have been sacked, we have not had to spend huge amounts of money and there have been no breaches of the official secrets act. What we have had is lots of conversations with the people we police and forged some really positive relationships.

To those police areas not currently engaged, I ask the same question as I did in my first blog; Why are you waiting?

Murder: From the inside out

There is a widespread fascination with murder investigation. Turn on your TV tonight and see how long it takes for a fictional detective to become embroiled in an investigation. Walk into a bookshop and see how many of the titles are thrillers where somebody is killed in the first chapter, and the rest of the novel features our very clever (but troubled) hero solving the crime.

I have spent a large part of my career as a Detective and have worked on and run plenty of murders. I thought it might be interesting to blog about the reality of murder investigation.

Each murder investigation is different, but there are threads that run through all of them.

The most obvious thread is that every murder is a tragedy. Victims vary from housewives to criminals, young to old, but every one will have a family and a story.

One of the most difficult but important jobs at the outset of an investigation is meeting the family. These are incredibly challenging and emotional meetings. Just imagine meeting somebody for the first time and telling them that you are responsible for solving the murder of their son, daughter, husband or wife. I have done this many times, and it never fails to have an impact on me.

During the initial hours, the pressure on the SIO (senior investigating officer) leading the investigation is immense. You are thinking about setting up the teams, preserving the scene, meeting the family, managing the media, setting up house to house trawls for witnesses, arranging the post mortem, starting a CCTV trawl, searching for offenders, securing vital evidence, setting a budget, talking to the coroner and a million other things.

You must also prepare to tell your own family that you probably won’t be at home for the next week.

I always visit the scene. I meet the forensic manager there, and always walk through the scene. Not all SIOs do this, but it helps me to get the lay out in my head, together with any blood splatter areas. On my last murder, analysis of the blood splatter patterns in the scene was crucial to understanding what went on. I try to keep the body in situ, as that often tells a story. I sometimes call the pathologist to the scene if I need an early opinion.

Dont believe any TV programme that shows simple post-mortems. They take hours, and they are always extremely unpleasant. Pathologists can’t generally give you reliable times of death, that is TV fiction.

Once the initial frenzy has died down and you have put some structure in place, you start to turn your attention to actually investigating. Almost all murders are solved through detailed examination of the evidence and forensics. The SIO has to make sure that they are aware of the detail of a huge amount of evidence. You reach a point where you feel as though you cannot absorb a single further piece of information, but you must because it may just be the vital link.

Once you have established your team, you need to brief them, I like to brief first and last thing, the amount of breakthroughs that occur when all the officers involved are in the same room is incredible.

The pursuit of an offender can last for minutes or months. I have recently had officers all over the country chasing down suspects and following up leads. I have run two protracted manhunts this year. They involved really long hours and require me to make dynamic and difficult decisions. Once you have located the offenders there is very often a requirement to run a firearms job to actually arrest them, if they have killed one person, how much risk are my officers at?

While all of this is going on, further demands are thrown at you; Who was the victim? What was their ethnicity? What is the impact on the community? Are more people at risk? What are the media saying? Are you prepared to speak to them? The pressure that I feel at this stage of an investigation is immense. Everybody is looking to you for answers, and it is really important to build in some time to actually think and plan.

Normally at this point you will realise that you haven’t eaten since breakfast and you will send somebody out to get the first in what will become a series of takeaways. Murder rooms are not healthy places.

Once the suspect is under arrest, the pressure continues to grow as the clock starts ticking. My interview teams will have been working on an interview plan whilst the hunt for the offender has carried on. There will be plans in place for the forensic recovery off the offender, doctors are called to assess their health, and the defence solicitor lands ready to be briefed.

There is a strange relationship at the best of times between police officers and defence solicitors. This is magnified during murder investigations. Partly this is because of what is at stake, but also officers investigating murders find it difficult to remain detached. You meet the victim’s family, find out every detail of their life, meet their friends, examine their movements, look at their phone messages, visit their workplace, and really do feel as though you know them. The defence solicitor has none of this, and it is their job to help the suspect. This is of course entirely right and proper, and officers and solicitors are professionals, but nonetheless these relationships are often awkward.

Once the interviews are finished, the Crown Prosecution Service enter the fray, as we engage with them regarding a charging decision. These are always long and complex discussions, but if the evidence is there (and it should be after all the effort) the suspect will be charged. The initial paperwork is put together and submitted (there will be months of follow up files to be submitted) and the suspect is sent to the cells waiting for the next court session.

In my opinion murder investigation is amongst the most demanding and rewarding work it is possible to do. I am waiting to be promoted, so I may have run my last investigation, but there is nothing more exhilarating, frustrating, exhausting and satisfying than investigating and solving murder . I hope that this has provided you with an insight into the reality, from the inside out.

Ashes to Ashes?

There was a remarkable symmetry to the past week or so for me. Ashes to Ashes returned to our screens, Detective Inspector Frost retired, and I returned to the investigative arena, as  a Detective Chief Inspector running three major crime teams in the West Midlands.

 DI Frost and DCI Hunt are fictional detectives. They are both rebels who bend rules on a regular basis to ensure that the bad guys are locked up by the end of the programme. They have become folk heroes as a result of their maverick approach to fighting crime, harking back to the ‘good old days’ when police officers seemed to resolve almost every crime with a ‘clip round the ear.’

Although there are clearly large elements of both programmes  dramatised for TV purposes, there are some elements which I am sure many officers will recognise. Frustration with form filling, solicitors, needless dictats and bureacracy from organisations set up to monitor ‘throughput , output and productivity.’ (Don’t ask me I have no idea what they mean either.)

I have been a Detective for the majority of my career. I will be blogging about some of my day to day experiences and jobs.  I have previously investigated (and solved) numerous murders, tackled drug networks, taken guns off the streets and dealt with a whole host of serious crime. I love my work, and can’t wait to get stuck back in!

In the past, police forces have invested lots of energy telling people about neighbourhood policing and uniform patrols, whilst keeping some of the more complex work, often carried out by Detectives,  shrouded in mystery. If we are to actually make people feel safer, it is really important that we are open about the level of protection that goes on behind the scenes keeping them safe.

Future blogs might not be as exciting as DCI Hunt, (‘Fire up the peugeot diesel’ doesn’t have quite the same ring as ‘Fire up the Quattro’), but it will be real and it will allow you access to an area where your previous opinions will probably be based on a combination of The Bill, Silent Witness and Morse.

Hopefully you will find it interesting, let me know if there are specific areas of crime investigation you are interested in reading about.

Twitter on the frontline

On 3rd April 2010, the English Defence League staged a protest in Dudley. Unite Against Facism were also in Dudley on this date, taking part in a multi-cultural event. These two groups are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their views, and on previous occasions when they had met there had been disorder and violence.

Both of these groups use social media as their preferred form of communication. In the past, supporters from both sides had used twitter to spread misinformation about the other, increasing tension and stoking up hostility. I was in charge of communications on the day and took the decision to work from the scene of the protests, armed with an i-phone to compliment the rest of my equipment. ( Not much help in a traditional ruck, but essential for mobile communications.)

Using the i-phone I was able to use tweetdeck to monitor a range of messages from all sides of the argument. I was in touch with the command cell, and able to dispel rumours instantly.  Before the start of the protest, there was a message posted on Facebook that EDL members had smashed the windows of a mosque overnight. I checked, found it was not true, and tweeted a message to say so. Then a tweet was circulated that an EDL steward had been stabbed by UAF supporters, again after checking I was able to refute the allegation. This carried on throughout the day. When the EDL broke through police lines, I was able to update people straight away, and all significant events during the day were subject to messages.

This is groundbreaking stuff for policing in the UK. We have used social media as a broadcast platform during protests in the past, but we have not had immediate updates from officers on the ground, enabling two way conversations. Of course I was subject to the usual abuse from a minority, ( I still don’t understand why people bother to swear at police officers, I was immune after about 20 minutes in the job.) I also had a number of queries about why the police were paying somebody to monitor twitter, as though I did nothing else but tweet all day.  The overwhelming majority were however really positive, and I have had fantastic feedback.

Couple of health warnings, with immediate messaging it is much more difficult to corroborate facts. I put out a message disputing a chant had taken place, when in fact it had (sorry @NMEC) confusing a legitimate journalist with an agitator. Also, once you commit to this, you have to have the capacity to maintain it, and the battery on my i-phone came perilously close to running out twice (thanks @skynews for the recharge)

It is really important not to use social media in isolation, but as part of a wider strategy to get messages out. Whilst I was tweeting I was also updating  traditional media, providing interviews throughout the day and getting messages out to the communities of Dudley through our comms network. ( I also did a fair bit of actual policing, nice to be out of my office.) Social media will only ever be one form of communication, but the unique two way nature of it makes it increasingly important to policing.

Throughout the day it was also clear to me that lots of traditional journalists were following my twitter feed, and there is a real overlap between the two mediums now. I was able to answer questions from journalists in realtime, and they were able to check on the accuracy of their reports. On the day new and old media complemented each other.

Overall for a first try, despite the hiccups, I was really pleased with both the use of twitter, and the reaction I got to it. I would be interested to hear your views…

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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