Bobby On The Tweet - Social Media, Community Policing and Engagement in the 21st Century

The recent Liam Stacey case where a member of the public was jailed for 56 days for use of abusive, racist and threatening language has raised many questions about the emergence of Twitter and other forms of social media in a stable and cohesive society.  We clearly live in an information age unlike any previously experienced   with rolling 24/7 news output across several media, the internet in the palm of ones hand and the ability to communicate with millions across any time zone and all hemispheres instantaneously.  The main qualitative differences here are that social media and the internet allow us to ‘engage’ – as the contemporary parlance describes it – with each other, the State, organs of power, business and political leaders, our favourite (and least favourite) footballers and soap stars – the list is as long as there are people with access to such technology.  This new ‘White Heat’ of E-technology is a far cry from Harold Wilson’s post-War 1960s optimism of technology being the key that turns the lock to industrial and technological advancement of our society and subsequent economic growth and liberty.  We are facing something far more powerful yet if we fail to harness its power correctly something potentially more damaging and uncontrollable. Far be it from me to present myself as a Luddite for the new Millennium but the acceleration of how much society has embraced Twitter for instance is as exponential in its pace as it is ubiquitous in its regard.  Where will this accelerated shift in the very nature of the way we communicate with one another and the way in which the individual communicates with the State and the general hegemony is beyond my comprehension.  Whilst a dystopian vision of the future through some hermetically generated existence where we are all conjoined to our media tools is far from a reality I believe that we need to start assessing the best way to reap the benefits of social media as well as identifying the key dangers vis-a-vis community engagement.


Whilst policing is learning to address the reconfiguration of its services in a very new socio-economic and political landscape than just three years ago, recent notions of ‘community policing’, ‘community cohesion’ and ‘participatory policing’ are having to be reshuffled, unpicked, and re-evaluated in different more innovative ways.  I have always been a strong advocate of such seismic change (of any form) being the crucible of innovation and these current changes are almost forcing the police (amongst other services) to come up with new more resourceful yet high impacting methods of policing our communities.  The embracing of social media and Twitter in particular is far more than the police engaging in a ‘Bring Your I-Phone to Work Day’.  I personally receive Twitter-feeds from dozens of Police Divisions daily and this is growing rapidly.  Those at the top are clearly aware of this and have sanctioned it but are they completely aware of the potential hazards of their rank-and-file staff’s unchecked Twitter output?


Back to the Liam Stacey case: the standard Red-Top induced knee-jerk reactions from many quarters have inevitably begun.  Those who believe that this is a clear indication that we need to closely monitor and police the ‘virtual streets’ more and those who feel that any greater political powers are effectively an Orwellian 1984 Police-State by the back-door, and then those who simply see that we are simply lacking the manpower and resources to do this even if we wanted to. I tend to be a little more circumspect in my appraisal of what is clearly a test-case here with Liam Stacey. The great frontier is opening in front of us – like Vasco de Gama, Magellan and the Wagon Trains we know not what to expect apart from the fact that we are venturing into the great wide open searching for new ways – all permutations and developments are possible.  Not so much a Brave New World but the same one with fundamentally changing methods of interaction, exchange of knowledge, expression of emotion, shifting language and a second wave of declining deference to the institutions that for so long dominated the crime and disorder discourse – what sociologists and Gramsci  referred to as the ‘hegemonic bloc’.


One cannot put the Genie back in the Bottle and yet there is something rather primal and natural about the ephemeral tweet; a scream into the ears of millions of people in less than 140 characters instantaneously is a concept that even 20 years ago would have appeared to be something from a Star Trek episode or an Asimov novel.  Such untrammelled power certainly raises many questions about the suitability of current legislation such as the already considerably outdated Communications Act (2003) which was tabled before Twitter was even invented!


It has also effected considerable debate about traditional notions of the interface of the state with the individual and what constitutes ‘privacy’ anymore – is it the Tweeter or the person Tweeted (the Tweetee perhaps) about whose privacy and freedoms must take primacy? I fear that the Civil Liberties of the former cannot be so readily reconciled with the legal protection of the latter’s and certainly not with the currently weak legislation.  Perhaps we must accept that the pace of technology and the Twittersphere/Blogosphere/Web (even the jargon changes so rapidly – language cannot keep up with the rapidity) of this ubiquitous techno-soapbox.  The advent of social media has eroded privacy as we know it and perhaps traditional notions of policing and engagement will be insufficient to keep up with such shifts.  For example if local CDRPs (Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships) are to remain true to their statutory obligations under the Crime and Disorder Act (1998) to combat Hate Crime and, say, conspiracy to riot etc. then this will require almost constant monitoring (even on a local basis) in order to suggest a solid commitment to such a Zero-Tolerance attitude to such (mis-)use of social media.  Of course there will be the inevitable prioritisations as there have hitherto been in policing the internet through the emergence of video, mobile-phone and internet advancements over the last 30 years where they have been used to facilitate paedophile rings, illegal pornography, serious organised-crime and terrorist activity.  But such cases by definition are cases where those who are suspects are monitored within the law in order to collate evidence to submit to the CPS.  To suggest that, even in more financially profligate times, there could ever be a practical way of resourcing the requisite number of staff and technology to monitor all social media output is mere fantasy and akin to Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain side - that is to say self-defeating use of energy at best and more evidently impossible as time goes on.  The current austere climate of post-CSR cuts and the behemoth nature of the internet would preclude most this anyway.   Instead of attempting to be Masters of the Oceans we need to respect it and be aware of its power – discipline, best practice and planning.  Many people use social media ineffectively and with scant regard for who is reading.  Those people will learn through their mistakes a la Liam Stacey.  The police cannot afford to make such errors and should learn NOW.  As one Police Senior recently said “If we can teach them to shoot guns properly then we can teach them Tweet properly”.


Some positive usage of Twitter by GMP during the Manchester riots, despite there being solid evidence of conspiracy to riot and communication between the rioters through social media that in many cases effected some kind of military operation on their behalf – a game of virtual tag ensued according to some reports from Police Officers and community leaders I have spoken with.  Of course many of us could have turned off the TV and radio and simply watch things unfold on Twitter etc.  This being so much the case that because of the lack of information being fed to reporters on the ground the main news networks’ broadcast was taken up with Twitter-based reports and discussion/conjecture/hearsay.  This of course is a rather dangerous precedent for the media but offers the police and the CPS some real clues if not evidence of the actions and identities of many of the looters and rioters.  Of course this is somewhat of a special case and everyday community policing is very different.  Effective usage of social media by the police however has great potential – if harnessed and used thoughtfully and strategically.  Crime prevention tactics and hints at particular times of year or in particular weather for instance have already proved to have an impact upon local crime and disorder.  With community policing and ‘marketing’ the message and image of the police in communities then it can act as a really effective tool in communicating with dis-engaged youth, hard to reach groups, BME communities, repeat offenders et al.    The very people that the police suffer the perennial problem of engaging with in anything other than an operational face-to-face.  Twitter will not change the ‘game’ of many of these groups’ attitudes towards them but it may create an extra new mode of communication between them.


Many police often tell me that the problem with many young people who drift into delinquency and criminal behaviour is the importance of peer pressure and ‘street respect’ – being seen ‘talking to a Copper’ or being stopped in a group and being seen to cooperate can be not only socially exclusive but also potentially dangerous for that individual.  ‘Most of them are OK when you get them on their own’ is the standard mantra and surely Twitter is a potentially great way of getting messages over to many individuals as an early intervention away from the gang, street, classroom etc.  I am focussing mainly up the young here not because I believe that they were wholly or even mainly responsible for the recent riots or even for most crime but in terms of community policing there are key strategies of early interventions working in partnership with other key agencies which can stem the drift of many young people into crime and delinquency.  If used properly social media can be an excellent lever of such new modes of engagement.


However, there are certain risks and dangers with Twitter and the internet in general and it would be remiss of any of us to assume to the police would be immune to such backfires, be they conscious or unwittingly so.  The seemingly ephemeral nature of conveying a message to the ‘Twittersphere’ of less than 140 characters with such immediacy actually belies the hugely harmful impact that a slightly ambiguous or misjudged Tweet can cause and if this comes from a member of the Police then the harm done to local community relations and community policing in general can be so acute that in mere seconds, years of community cohesion and community relations can be undone.  Much common sense comes into play here and self-policing from all Tweeters is the order of the day.  However if the trend of police forces embracing the social media continues then it will not be too long before every operational member of the police (and beyond) are all expected to Tweet on a daily basis.


There are too many pitfalls as well as positive outcomes of effective usage of social media in communities to explore here but we certainly welcome your experiences, comments and thoughts for the future on this topic.


If you wish to discuss how Grant Moar Communities can assists you in embracing Social Media effectively whether you are a member of a key agency like the Police or a community based group or if you are interested in any of our other support and training services in community safety then please feel free to get in touch with us for a chat:

Facebook:  Grant Moar Communities

Twitter:  @lolgrant7 or @Max Moar 

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Comment by joe taylor on April 19, 2012 at 22:26

Our local police tweet and it's a great service as far as I'm concerned. I would know nothing about local crime or police activity otherwise. They also use email but for me twitter is better.

You mentioned the Liam Stacey incident.

Do you have a view on the points made in this article?

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