Police and social media, why are we waiting?

Communication is the cornerstone of policing. The image of the bobby on the beat chatting to people is enshrined in British culture. It is an image of which we are rightly proud, and it is these conversations that provide us with the information upon which we depend.

The confidence agenda requires us to tell people what we are doing. Nobody is going to be confident in an organisation who they don’t hear from, and who they can’t engage with.

Why then are many police forces so reticent to engage in social media? I have spoken to people involved in policing up and down the country, and I am genuinely amazed at the real fear that there seems to be around blogs, Twitter and Facebook. We are still in the position where the majority of Forces do not have a meaningful web presence.

I have a theory that people have become a little bit seduced and scared by the technology involved in social media. In my experience though, there are no dark secrets associated to the web, IT IS JUST ANOTHER FORM OF COMMUNICATION!

If we do not engage, people will still talk about us, still say positive and negative things, the only difference is, we won’t know anything about it. We will have no opportunity to influence or participate in the conversation. What is absolutely certain is that people won’t stop using the web to express their views just because we aren’t listening to them.

The things that I hear cited as reasons not to participate are consistent;

  • Officers may say something which will embarrass that force – Yes they might, but they could do that in any number of forums.
  • Officers will spend all their time talking to their mates and arranging their social lives – Again, they might, but surely that is what supervisors are for, it doesn’t mean that every officer needs to be denied access. If officers or staff abuse it, stop them from using it again.
  • It costs too much money/we don’t have the skills – It costs peanuts in the grand scheme, and every force has lots of people who use social media every day at home, but are then barred from doing so at work. All of the required skills exist within every police force, you just have to ask.
  • Our security might be breached – Downing Street and the Intelligence services are using social media, even the CIA are on there. It’s not that difficult.
  • Somebody might say some thing derogatory about us – Yes they might, but they will be saying it anyway, and this way we will know, and have a platform to respond. In my experience, negative comments are normally drowned out by the overwhelming majority, who actually quite like their police officers.

Can anybody really look five years ahead and say that their force won’t need to be using social media? A whole generation of people – our communities – are growing up (or growing older) using social media as their primary communications tool. They are not going to stop. By failing to engage with them in this area, we are allowing people to become more and more remote from their officers.

A group of early adopter forces, and the NPIA had a meeting yesterday, together with some leading lights from the web 2 world. There are some fantastic examples of work that is being carried out in this area. People have been able to engender real community spirit, and make a genuine difference by giving communities a voice. Police officers have solved real crimes, traced missing people and keep their communities up to date with what is going on. (Have a look at http://twitter.com/hotelalpha9, I bet his community don’t moan that they don’t know what the police are doing!)  Much of the preparatory work has been done. There are policies and strategies waiting to be shared.

I would encourage forces to have a go. What is the worst that can happen? More importantly, think of the best case scenario. Improved communications, better confidence, engaged and informed communities.

Why are we waiting?


5 Responses to “Police and social media, why are we waiting?”

  1. 1 Russell Eden November 28, 2009 at 1:31 pm


    You really seem to have this by the throat, so to speak. Excellent blog; great to see WMP leading the way.

    Cheers, and good luck with the project.


  2. 2 Ged Carroll November 29, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Its a really great post that touches on many of the issues facing police forces online. I know of a number of frontline officers in the Met and Merseyside police who are doing great work utilising social media already whilst their comms unit colleagues are left far behind.

    There are a number of issues in terms of online engagement, privacy and etiquette that have come about mainly because society as a whole haven’t got a good handle on these issues yet and legislation often does more harm than good. Ultimately it will rely on something that good policemen have always relied upon: tact and common sense.

    There will be mistakes made along the way, but if we can get past petty political point scoring and turf wars I am confident in the future of the police engaging through social media.

  3. 3 Sgtpeterallan December 19, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    An excellent article. I retweeted it when originally posted.

    I totally subscribe to everything the articles says. Social media is a choice. Different people wish to receive their information in different forms at different times. Social media merely broadens the choice that people have in relation to how they access information.

    I am excited about the arrival of a newly created E-Services Manager into our PR team in January. I have so many technical questions and want to do so many things, but do not know who to ask. Hopefully Sussex will follow the lead of forces such as WMP and North Yorks.

    The most important part of the message is as stated, social media is not, could and should not be a replacement for face to face interactions between communities and their local police in the ever increasing number of arenas that we engage in.

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