Mark Walsh is a Youth Offending Team Police Officer in Hampshire. He recently won a Churchill Fellowship to spend six weeks in the USA researching “peer courts”.
Why I tweet from the beat
Myself and @Sarge_Rob were some of the first police tweeters to start using Twitter in our area. My ‘tweeting from the beat’ started via @pompeyccupolice which was one of @hantspolice trial accounts which we started in January 2010. In November 2012, I was awarded the @GoldenTwits award for best corporate individual in recognition of my ‘Sweet Tweets’.
I am very proud of this award since its voted on by the public and was an indication to me, I may be getting things right in the world of Twitter.
Why are police officers allowed to tweet?
Since 2010 there have been an explosion of police twitter accounts and most have become well respected and established.
Despite this I still get surprised comments asking if we (as police officers) are allowed to Tweet and why we do it?
A policing objective in Hampshire is to be active in every community. We are very active with members of the community who unfortunately become victims of crime and very active with those who offend in the community or whom are suspected of crimes. But what about everyone else?
It may be fair to say therefore you may not see a police officer on every street corner but you can probably find one on Twitter!
Some people may say they would rather see officers on the street corner but I ask them to think how much time they spend on the street corner?
These days most people would say they spend more time online than on the street. I feel policing should therefore be visible and active online as well as on the streets!
Twitter doesn’t replace any of our traditional contact methods and we are happy to say we will always still do face-to-face no matter how much technology advances.
What’s more, I like Twitter as we are able to Tweet from the Beat so become visible in multi-dimensional ways.
My own force is also committed to supporting the use and development of mobile data and @hantsmobiledata is a dedicated project which seeks to make the best use of technology. They have literally made every street corner a possible policing office.
Policing culture has changed
10 years ago we may turn up and deal with an incident and if anyone enquired what was going on we may have responded in a very firm, closed off manner: “Nothing to see here – move along”.
These days, where we can and subject to operational requirements, we would tweet about it, sometimes as it happens.
Conversations are always taking place and we feel its only right we be involved to ensure people are kept update with the right information.
A recent of example was during the summer riots in London. Because Hampshire Police were so in tune and active with social media we were able to reassure and quash any rumours in Hampshire that the riots had spread to our cities. The alternative was upset and undue worry and stress could have escalated but instead people were able to say – well I follow Hampshire Police Officers on Twitter and they say it’s just a fire in Portsmouth which is under control and people are not having a riot!
Extending our reach
Twitter has allowed us to extend our reach to people who may not otherwise have any contact with us.
For me it has helped to break down barriers with young people.
That is not to say I have not been successful in doing this using traditional methods its just that Twitter is immediate, informal, free and easy to use so has allowed me to keep up with the ‘Digital Generation’.
Sociologists like Castells believe technology is shifting society away from a material based culture to an information culture. It became very clear that we either needed to be part of the social shift or get left behind. My 5 year old daughter already knows how to navigate her away around a tablet computer for education, information and of course Angry Birds and is a clear indication of how the times are changing to me.
I have had far more interaction and messages from young people interesting in joining the police on Twitter in 7 months then I have had come up to me in the streets in 7 years.
The only potential draw back of using Twitter as a police officer is that it is ‘always on’.
They say a police officer is never off duty and there have been occasions where I have helped people, given information and have had to respond to things while I was on leave or not working. I personally do not mind doing this as it maintains confidence and keeps up the engagement however, it can take a lot of personnel investment.
Especially when the use of Twitter is not forced on me to do by my Constabulary. Everyone in Hampshire Police Tweets voluntarily with the support of the media and communications team.
Twitter is a two-way street
My top tip is to remember Twitter is a two way process. If cannot be just about getting out what you want to say all the time. I follow people back, I respond to mentions whether good or bad when I can. I listen to people’s feedback and offer support and encouragement.
Also remember Twitter is an informal communication tool so don’t be afraid to show where appropriate, you are human too, you have days off and a life outside of work.
This has been one of my main aims to demonstrate to people, especially young people that I maybe the ‘Old Bill’ but I also like people in my community. I do not exist above it and exist within it. Though with followers from young people as well as in my community to as far as LA, the Philippians, India, Canada and Australia, I do feel like an international officer at times.
This is great to me however and just affirms we are living in a globalised world and are making connections with many different people irrespective of race, region, wealth or class status thanks to social media.
There is a balance which has to be maintained between the corporate and individual line.
I am very consciously however if ‘X’ amount Police Twitter accounts are pumping out the same corporate messages the purpose of using Twitter will soon be defeated and people will quickly turn off.
So instead I ask people to give us a follow! We are not on Twitter to judge or maintain division, we are here to engage and build better relations.
This is the 38th post in the criminal justice/legal Why I tweet series. Read the others here.
If you’d like to develop your tweeting skills, check out my online Twitter coaching service which includes an individualised profile of your Twitter style.