Twitter cop

The last time I blogged about the police use of social media, I was amazed that so many police officers were active users of Twitter – there were 556 back on 19 September 2011.

I was so surprised at what was a new phenomenon to me that I coined a new phrase – #Twoppers – for Coppers who tweet.

Just four months on and the speed with which police forces across Britain have adopted social media has continued to accelerate. The #iPlod generation, as I now think of them, (thanks @TheCustodySgt) currently numbers 779.

@NickKeane, the digital engagement adviser at the National Policing Improvement Agency, is the man who keeps score. So comprehensively have police services embraced Twitter that Nick  maintains eight different lists; in addition to UKCOPs who Tweet, there are City Centre CopsHelicopsCorporate Force Twitter Accounts, not forgetting spoof accounts (of whom @SirIanBlair is my favourite).

But Tweeting is now just one example of how police use social media.

@SuptMarkPayne posted on his blog last week about the growing consensus that the police need to integrate social media into traditional policing in three key areas:

  • Engagement
  • Intelligence and
  • Investigation

Certainly engagement with the public is the primary aim of most iPlods. I posted previously about how those police areas who had built up extensive Twitter followings were able to use the micro-blogging channel to ensure that accurate information was relayed to the public during the riots. Safer Neighbourhood Teams in a number of areas are also using online web-based surveys to consult with local communities.

The use of social media for intelligence and investigation purposes has really taken off over the last few months, stimulated by the posting of CCTV footage online in the wake of the riots.

Police chiefs have quickly understood the power of social media – and the fact that it is relatively inexpensive. West Midlands Police, where Superintendent Payne works, has an online directory which details the hundreds of official police Twitter accounts, dozens of Facebook pages, plus their Youtube and Flickr channels.

This online presence has immediate public appeal – why watch “Police, Camera, Action” when you can see your local police in action down the streets you know. Most of the hundreds of videos depict police successes, or give information about major inquiries or crime prevention campaigns.; essentially more engagement work. Flickr is being used in a similar fashion, West Midlands are currently posting a new photo every day to depict different facets of local police work.

The local Facebook pages also provide information about local issues interspersed with appeals for intelligence on local crimes.

Sussex Police have a similar approach, even trying to attract people to their Google+ account, although like most of us they are waiting for the platform to take off in the UK. Like West Midlands they have used social media as a way of engaging with local communities and communicating the breadth of work that the police undertake.

The force launched its Sussex Police People transparency initiative at the end of October 2011, a year long campaign to open up the workings of the police to local people via live video, webchats, Twitter and Blogs. I am particularly impressed by the Blogs which follow the working lives of 12 police staff with very different roles. Where I think Sussex Police have got it right is that almost all the bloggers are front-line staff, not senior officers, including a PCSOScenes of Crime Officer and someone working at the Contact Centre.

The investigative uses of social media understandably receive less publicity, but accessing suspects’ Facebook pages to uncover connections and get a picture of recent movements is now standard practice.

Of course digital innovation provides challenges too. I call in evidence @Dietjustice‘s blog post on an officer’s confrontation with a keen legal student with a headcam. iPlods, and indeed many more of us who are not serving officers, may like to replace the phrase “keen legal student” with other, more Anglo-Saxon terms afterviewing the video – don’t miss it unless you are an officer with high blood pressure.

Many of us think of the Police as an organisation which is inherently bureaucratic and conservative, with both a small and large C – although Theresa May has done her best to balance up party political support across the ranks. But the speed with which it has embraced social media – and put it to effective use – has been impressive.

Three years ago Superintendent Payne found there was nowhere within the entire West Midlands Police Force where he could access the Youtube footage he needed to watch to further his investigation into a serious assault, now the force has a dedicated channel of its own hosting hundreds of videos.

New technology has been embraced by the police and the criminals it seeks to detect. At the current point of time, I have to say that the iPlods are making faster progress.

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