Social media and the police
How social media is driving engagement between the police and the public
Media Coverage: Publication: ContingencyToday
The past few years have seen much negative publicity about the state of relations between the police and the public. A "citizen's inquiry" into the riots in Tottenham during Summer 2011 concluded they were partly caused by toxic relations with local police. There was also extensive criticism of police tactics surrounding recent student and anti-cuts protests in London.
Back in Summer 2011, Home Secretary, Theresa May announced a review by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), which would consider instances of "undue influence, inappropriate contractual arrangements and other abuses of power in police relationships with the media and other parties". One of the implicit aims of the review was to help rebuild public belief in the police.
In light of all this, people might be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that people's trust in the police is on the wane. However, the findings of a new survey of more than 2,000 British adults, carried out by online polling firm, YouGov for SAS, paints a much more positive picture. The results of the survey indicate that a growing use of social media is providing a platform for public engagement with the police and encouraging people's willingness to share information with law enforcement agencies.
The report found that nearly half (42 per cent) of online British adults use social media websites at least once a day. The increasing prevalence of social media usage especially among the young is opening up a completely new area in which the police can seek to engage with its public. And the signs so far are that people would be receptive to such an approach.
Reaching out Via Facebook
The YouGov survey also finds an increasing willingness to report crimes via social media rather than by telephone or face-to-face, especially among the young. 15% of 18-24-year-olds said they would use a social media site to contact the police if they witnessed a crime (as opposed to only 1 per cent of the 55-plus age range).
Last summer, Lothian and Borders Police became a pioneer in this area with its new "Made from Crime" scheme that allows the public to report suspected criminals, anonymously if they wish, using Facebook or via Bluetooth to link directly to the Crimestoppers website.
Other UK forces that have either considered or actively implemented schemes that let people report crimes over social media include Sussex, Essex and Greater Manchester Police. These kinds of developments are symptomatic of a welcome change in the culture, with the public increasingly willing to engage with police and share information to help prevent and solve crime and to achieve higher levels of personal and public security. This willingness to share highlights that despite ongoing negative publicity about police public relations, people are ready to engage with them if they believe it will lead to higher levels of personal security.
In line with this, the YouGov survey finds that nearly half of the British public (48 per cent) is prepared to share personal data with the police in return for enhanced personal security against criminal or terrorist attacks. The percentage prepared to do this with the police was much higher than with other groups. 37 per cent claimed they would be prepared to share with border/customs for these reasons but only 22 per cent were prepared to share with the Government.
Successful communication is, of course, a two-way process. These survey findings in turn highlight the scale of the opportunity for the police to reach out to people and tap into a rich source of public information. This source is likely to be strengthened further if they are successful in building levels of trust with the public and stronger community links.
The public's willingness to share personal information with the police can stimulate a change in the conversation. The explosion in social media has seen a revolution in the way the world communicates. In the run up to London 2012, the time is right for law enforcement agencies to ensure that they catch up and actively work together with the public both offline and online to combat crime, from low-level to major criminal activity and terrorism.