Police Accountability through Social Media

I was reminded by @sherrilynneof my interest in how the practices of the Police have come to interest as a result of recent protests and legislation and the role Social Media can play in maintaining a sense of accountability.

My interest follows a recent seminar held by Sherrilynne and PDMS about the West Midlands’ Police use of Social Media to engage with the public. The West Midlands’ Police force efforts to create this engagement is commendable, as the speaker, CI Mark Payne said, communicating with the public had previously been through posters in public places and maybe a caution or arrest. With an increasing sense of resentment rising towards the Police in their interpretation and implementation of thousands of new laws, such engagement is essential as it shows at least an intent to create a bi-directional channel of communication for the public and their Police force.

The Labour Government has introduced over 3,000 new laws since they took office in 1997. This is law making on a massive scale, not helped by significant events such as increasing terrorism. The Government has brought in at least 9 acts of Parliament that actively increases the powers of the state to intrude into or restrict our civil liberties, most of which are in the name of terrorism and our common safety. The threat of terrorism is largely the result of the US and UK’s foreign policy towards other nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq, which itself has caused protests that have been curtailed still further by legislation. This is a Government that does not advocate democratic rights such as protest, free speech or meetings to discuss matters of public policy by groups such as Greenpeace, etc. The United Kingdom is suffering due to its lack of a Constitution, such as that of the United States which protects rights such as free speech (although this is often muddied by religious interpretation).

The Police thus find themselves in a difficult position. Policing in this country has been implemented by the permission of the people, indeed, a thin blue line between consensual and compliant policing (and policed) society and a Police state. But how do the Police interpret and implement these new laws? There are many examples of the Police coming over heavy-handed either as a result of misunderstanding the legislation or becoming over zealous in their implementation. While countering the Terrorist threat caused by the UK and US foreign policy is a worthy cause, if it undermines our own liberties as British people, it risks the loss of public confidence. Aberrations in the implementation of photography laws have been known for a while. Another example that came to my attention recently is of the Transport Journalist Christian Wolmar being told to walk on the pavement to “defeat terrorism”. This is clearly insane, but I feel it is down to lack of training, rather than the malice of the police (“special” or otherwise). The Police’s increased use of force against protests (legal and otherwise) has also resulted in a difficult relationship with the Police. The G20 protests, particularly, have caused key questions to be raised over basic Police brutality which resulted in the death of an innocent bystander and the use of techniques such as “Kettling“. Having been “kettled” myself, it is of no wonder why protestors are wound up, even egged on by the Police to create a tense situation where law breaking and abuse is even more likely.

So how can the Police work against this negative reaction to laws that they have been charged with implementing, from politics they can’t control? Social Media has been an exciting conduit for businesses for marketing purposes and engagement with consumers, so the Police can – and should – use this new media to make the communication two-way. As the Government imposes limitations on democracy, so democratic society will push-back the boundaries and start to ask questions. It is for the Police to understand this movement for what it is and to engage with it professionally and appropriately.

As CI Mark Payne said, social media presents opportunities and challenges. Firstly, it can form a conversation between the Police and members of the public. Current promotions, campaigns and concerns can be published by the Police, with comments and discussion by the active “followers” of the various media feeds. West Midlands’ Police force has got their own Facebook page, but so has the Northern Neighbourhood Policing Team on the Isle of Man. As a follower of this team, and with Ramsay connections, I find that this is a fantastic way to engage with the community. Maybe the Isle of Man is an easy place to build a strong relationship between Police and public, based on an already strong community, but that takes nothing away from the effort itself. The sergeants (and higher positions, along with other agencies dealing with community cohesion) behind the Facebook page are enthusiastic about this medium and it shows in their output. Real communication is occurring, but remaining within a controlled and sensible manner that is not impinging on individuals’ privacy, identity or views in the community. They have even linked up with that master criminal, Baddy Guy.

Social Media can also present a threat, however. Bullying has moved from the playground to the internet via cyber stalking, cyber bullying and other sinister practices employed by paedophiles, scammers and subversive groups advocating racism, fascism, etc. People’s identities have become a commodity that is tradeable and accessible by anyone with a modicum of knowledge. While use of computers requires some awareness of these important issues, it is understandable that not everyone is aware of the risks of posting personal information on the internet and opening up their profile for interaction with people who may wish to cause harm to them as an individual. It is a new requirement that the Police and related agencies need to monitor internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. to help educate users to protect themselves and employ modern Information Systems to secure convictions against malicious users. As CI Mark Payne said, the Police will always be playing catch-up in this game. Technology has become increasingly important in preserving our ability to use our civil liberties by the momentum of its progress, but the police must overcome the inevitable sense of inertia that this will create and fill the vacuum by using educated teams, rather than relying on restrictive and ill-understood legislation by Government (which the Government itself does not fully understand).

Finally, and for an aspect of interaction that was not discussed in CI Mark Payne’s talk, is that of using new media to expand policing into the community using user generated content. As news agencies now find themselves using Twitter-sourced content to cover unfolding news stories, so the Police could open up channels to enable the public to submit issues which they find concerning. The CrimeStoppers scheme has long been a success and offers a way for members of the public to anonymously contact a team devoted to following up leads in order to secure a conviction. Couldn’t this be extended, to include new media channels such as allowing emailing in to a similar team of your concerns? I recently blogged about the standards of driving on The Isle of Man, which continues to get me frustrated that the Police seem to only be able to do anything when they themselves have witnessed it or corroborating evidence is available to secure a conviction. (Interestingly, other regular road users such as Driving Schools are not able to report drivers because they don’t hold the same standing as a Policeman, although they probably have a better understanding of road law) The fact is, drivers drive badly and risk injury, dog owners allow their dogs to foul the pavement and don’t clean up after them and people are made to feel vulnerable by anti-social behaviour, every day. Setting up a channel to allow this to be videoed, photographed or reported simply in an email would be a good way to build up intelligence. Bad drivers don’t necessarily need to be dragged through court, they just need to be made aware of their behaviour. Likewise, dog owners that they live in a community which is all the more pleasurable without dog feces everywhere. How the Police use this information is up to them, but opening up such channels will help community members feel empowered. Special interest groups are active in the community, but these are often time consuming and slow to act for the average person to become involved with, social media can speed these groups up by inviting individuals to participate.

Social Media is exciting in the way it is breaking down boundaries. From the college-goers of the US that started Facebook, this has spread through Facebook use by professionals, “silver surfers”, companies wishing to market and engage with their consumers and now, maybe the final boundary has been broken, that of engagement by the authorities with the public. As news agencies have had to change their game plan to embrace social media, so public bodies must also overcome the inertia of public policy and be innovative. From a personal point of view, while I resent the powers being given to the Police and their implementation of these powers, I find it a pleasing to know that channels are opening up to allow democracy to “push back” and hold the authorities to public accountability, as Parliament has had to in the Iraq War Inquiry and the Trafigura injunction.