Police and social media, why are we waiting?

Mark Payne

Mark Payne

Mark is Chief Inspector for the West Midlands Police, UK; a police officer for 15 years mainly as a detective. He is now head of Press & PR for West Midlands. CI Payne was part of the “Police Who Tweet” panel, moderated by Lauri Stevens, at the 140 Characters Conference in London on Nov 17th. Chief Inspector Payne has started his own blog, where this article was also published. He tweets as @CIPayneWMPolice and @wmpolice

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 the Twitter account of Ed Rogerson of North Yorkshire Police, 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?

  • Thebluelightrun

    Regrettably many forces hold on to their Victorian values and prefer to keep it a closed shop. I agree with you, police forces have historically had difficulties in engaging with their communities, we now have a number of tools freely available to do so effectively but they shy away from them in fear of attracting bad press or the like. In fact in my force there is a blanket ban on using social networking if we choose to talk about our work! In fact if my superiors knew who I was on here I would expect displinerary action. Is this the right attitude? I can understand it if we had anything derogatory to say but most anon bloggers & tweeters know the limit and are educated enough not to cross the line. There is no reason why neighbourhood specialist officers, beat officers or PCSO’s should not use social networking to their advantage. After all, in 5 years time there may be yet another forward leap in communications and yet again many police forces will be left behind, like they are now.

  • http://www.lawscommunications.com Lauri Stevens

    I agree with your comment but I have to say I’m very optimistic about the way things are unfolding. In my recent two visits to the UK, one for the NPIA conference in October and then the 140 Characters Conference in November, I left both times feeling very positive about law enforcement adoption of social media. We have to remember that many large corporations haven’t event adopted social media strategies yet. Officers like you who have established your own presence are the visionaries. I say hang in there, I predict the rest aren’t far behind. Thanks for your great comment and for your interest in ConnectedCOPS.

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  • http://www.stephenwelton.com Stephen Welton

    It is absolutely a form of communication. These forms of communication are not going away. I’m in.

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