One question I was asked the other day got me thinking. Most of us in the policing world who access blogs etc are probably already converts to the uses of social media, and understand the potential it has for policing. Most police officers clearly understand the links between communication and solving crime. But for the public often that is not clear, and the question is asked:
“Why do the police waste their time on social media? Go out and catch criminals instead!”
This then is my attempt to get back to the basics and answer that question.
First we need to be clear about what the police are for, and what they should be doing. Many police officers will still quote Robert Peel, the founder of UK policing in 1829 on this. Peel identified 9 principles of policing. The first three of these so called Peelian Principles are:
1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.
3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observation of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
Principle seven states that:
7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
Hold On! I asked about Social Media, not for a history lesson!
So having got the principles sorted, how does social media fit into this? If the police are to get public approval of their actions, secure willing cooperation, maintain a relationship with the public, then there are lots of ways of doing this – one of which is using communication tools that the public themselves use, such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc. These are not replacements for walking the beat and holding community meetings. They are a good way of widening the audience that individual officers and teams can talk to however, and providing public engagement in a way that suits much of the public.
There is evidence demonstrating that better engagement with the public leads to increased confidence in the police. The logic goes that when the public feel able to influence and engage with their local police, they will in turn be more confident, and consider the police a legitimate source of support. Legitimacy therefore leads to more public involvement, including a willingness to pass on information and to act as witnesses, which in turn impacts upon all crime. (I have blogged on this subject previously here)
Peel’s ninth and final principle states what success looks like:
9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.
Effective policing is therefore not just about catching criminals, it is about preventing crime in the first place, and the responsibility for policing sits with everyone, not just the police. Communication with the public is essential to this.
..and social media? Well to my mind it is just a modern way of communicating. Yes it might feel strange to some people…but so did email a few years ago and the telephone a few years before that. No-one says the police should stop using those tools, and a few years into the future no-one will say the police shouldn’t use social media either. At the moment there are pockets of good practice around the country, but as the author William Gibson said:
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”