Police and social media – institutional leadership problems

Institutionally the police have fallen hopelessly behind the average citizen in the way that they communicate.  Police need to communicate  online as well as offline at all ranks with people in communities that they serve. I am a strong supporter of the police, but have been frustrated over the last couple of years by police senior management’s unwillingness to engage systematically online. Hopefully one good thing to come out of the riots a belated engagement with modern online media and strong leadership signals from ACPO and the Chiefs themselves.

Let’s take a sober look at the tactical and strategic pictures of police use of social media.  After they got over the initial shock the police seemed to make reasonable use of tactical intelligence acquired from social networks. Most likely there were small police intelligence cells attached to command centres reading open source traffic and using existing intercept powers acting properly under judicial authority. This could have included specific messages intercepts and possibly traffic data from network operators.  Away from the recent riots I also understand that the police make heavy use of Facebook when trying to solve serious youth crime such as murder.

After the fact, these tactics are to be expected of a modern police. But the police have missed a huge strategic trick by not being part of online conversations prior to recent events. Imagine a beat police officer not going into the most popular cafe in the area where everyone goes for a chat because they are forbidden by management from talking to people if coffee is involved.  Instead they hide a listening device in a ketchup bottle.  The institutional police refusal to engage with social media is about as daft. Police need to be part of local conversations online as well as on the street. Not just intercepting messages in intelligence cells, or piecing together networks after a murder but out there on local websites, on Facebook, on twitter, BBM on a daily basis using these media as regular citizens do. Then they can get forewarning of what might happen and influence people to prevent them going down the wrong path – as they do with such skill in offline conversations on the street.


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