Effective Engagement 1

I don’t believe that the police really want to engage with the public.

It is encouraging to see you all here reading this, but as a service we want to pay lip service to engagement, rather than use it to influence policing, and ultimately to reduce crime.

There is a massive resource out there that we regularly fail to engage with, often even when they want to engage with us. Its called the public.

Tweet from BrumPolice

The tweet above is a response to one from Jon Hickman, reporting an issue with porn magazines being flyered on cars in his street to his local police force. He felt so strongly about the response he initially got, that he created a detailed blog about it, complaining that the police didn’t seem interested.

He asked “Isn’t that [public passing titbits of information] what community policing is supposed to be about?”

(On a positive note the subsequent tweets from local neighbourhood team members were much more positive…but first impressions count).

How does your organisation deal with information, queries and intelligence from unusual sources? Are you welcoming or bureaucratic in your response?

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Social Media and Serious Crime part 2 – Pandora’s box

There has been lots written about the use of social media in the recent UK riots, and perhaps I will return to that subject in the future. In these posts however, I want to focus on how police forces can use social media in serious and major crime investigations, and talk about some of the potential downsides that this new technology offers.

Part 2 focuses on some of the potential downsides of social media in major crime investigations.

People will be well aware by now of the use that social media can be put to by criminals – the use of SM for organising criminal activities such as riots received widespread coverage in the press recently. There are however other aspects of social media in policing that are not as well discussed.

  • Covert operations – much of policing relies on covert operations of one sort or another. For the conspiracy theorists out there, this is well regulated (mainly by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA). Covert road sign - image from Nobody Knows I'm Elvis via Flick'rDespite the promises of Hollywood, much of this covert work requires old fashioned surveillance – people following other people, on foot or in vehicles. The rise of mobile technology means that a number plate can be traced by anyone in an instant (via DVLA’s website), and facial recognition has come a long way, meaning that it won’t be long before criminals can check a photograph of an associate against the memory of the Internet. If you posted 10 years ago on your Facebook page that you were looking to join the cops, then the resultant matching of your face to that post could be a serious matter. If you just have an unusual surname, then a simple Google search will reveal much about who you really are.
  • Crowd Sourcing of anti-police information – I have posted before about the use of social media to counter police ‘kettling’ tactics in public order situations, but the uses for the technology can  go far wider than that. The Website Who’s a rat describes itself as the “largest online database of informants and agents”. It’s mission is described as “definitely not an attempt to intimidate or harass informants or agents or to obstruct justice. This websites purpose is for defendants with few resources to investigate, gather and share information about a witness or law enforcement officer.” Even given that aim, the uses to which this could be put need to be understood by police forces engaged in covert work.
  • Covert tactics – forgive me for not going into detail here, but there are plenty of sources on the Internet where covert police tactics are discussed and revealed. Often the source for these leaks are police forces themselves, who are after all staffed by humans who sometimes reveal information that perhaps they shouldn’t. In the pre-Internet era, this would usually have limited consequences, but the power of the information age means that any slip can be shared and kept alive for years, and a number of small pieces of information can be amalgamated, jigsaw like, into a complete picture of tactics.
  • Criminal tip offs – criminals can use the instant, always on social media tools to warn one another. One recent example from aUKforce springs to mind where an admission of criminality was placed by an individual on their Facebook profile, only for their friends to note that this was evidence and should be removed. In that case the police were already aware, but all too often as criminals get more savvy it will be only the stupid ones that get caught.

None of this means that you shouldn’t use social media. In fact you need to understand it – positives and negatives alike – and only once you have an understanding can you take a conscious decision on how and where to use it, and when it may not be appropriate.

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Social Media and Serious Crime part 1

Vodka Bottle image via Flick'r courtesy espensorvik

There has been lots written about the use of social media in the recent UK riots, and perhaps I will return to that subject in the future. In these posts however, I want to focus on how police forces can use social media in serious and major crime investigations, and talk about some of the potential downsides that this new technology offers.

Part 1 focuses on some of the uses of social media in major crime investigations.

Be aware

In any major incident happening anywhere near people with a mobile phone signal, you can bet that there will be coverage on the social media networks. In the case of the Hudson plane crash in the USA, the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Michael Jackson, and numerous other events, Twitter was the first place the news broke. For police forces this is both a benefit and a challenge.

#BostonExplosion

Around 7:28pm on Wednesday 13th July 2011 the emergency services were called to the Broadfield Lane Industrial Estate in the small Lincolnshire town of Boston after reports of an explosion in an industrial unit on the estate.

When police got there they found that five men had been killed and a further man had been seriously injured.

The initial response on Twitter was rapid – at or about the same time that the 999 call came through to police headquarters, the first tweet on the subject went out, talking about multiple fatalities.

In the absence of an official message, people rushed to fill the vacuum on the social media sites.

Various Twitter messages

As you can see there was a significant degree of questioning and understandable concern from people nearby, and those with friends and relatives nearby. There were those who thought it might be an Islamic fundamentalist bomb factory, others an exercise, whilst others guessed at gas explosions. Luckily this event happened before the riots, otherwise it could have been a trigger for something far worse, and the explosion occurred at a time and place making it unlikely to have been a terrorist attack.

Ultimately, by the time this was the main item on the 10 o’clock news, #BostonExplosion was trending on Twitter (trending simply means that Twitter automatically sees this as a subject with lots of people interested in it. Twitter describes it as a way to help people discover the “most breaking” news stories from across the world).

Once the police released an audio update on the situation, this was picked up by Twitter, and the official line began to get out. There was however nearly 3 hours when the social media world was making up rumours and trying to guess what had happened.

Lesson – police forces need to think about what will be happening on social media, and they need to consider it quickly. An agreed and measured press release in 3 hours no longer works as the sole method of communication. When I speak to SIOs (Senior Investigating Officers for such incidents) they are often concerned, rightly, with managing information flows. Reveal too much and a force runs the risk of looking foolish at best, or revealing critical investigative avenues to the criminals at worst. However a simple reassurance message can be released “we are aware of the incident and are attending. “Further updates will be posted using this hashtag” “Please do not come to the scene” etc. Rumours that are obviously untrue can be quickly dealt with “we have no indication that this was a terrorist incident” for example. Quick communication does not mean losing control. No communication on the other hand does risk losing control.

Community issues, confidence and reassurance

After the incident there were discussions that continued on Twitter, Facebook and on the comments threads on various websites. Again a police force needs to be aware of what is being said for investigative and intelligence reasons, but also to reassure the public.

Comments posted within a day or so included “…this is what happens when you get involved in illegal ops is no great loss as they are defrauding every tax paying BRITISH citizen what else are they involved in?… get rid of them they are only sponging on us and our country send all their families back to where they come from ASAP” (from a website comments thread) and the following on Facebook from the right-wing English Defence League.

EDL Tweet
As well as indicators of community tensions towards the eastern European community in Boston there were comments about the police. “…police were aware of this illegal alcohol manufacture – if we are to believe what the locals are saying. Lives have been lost and there will be the cost of investigating this, and no doubt compensation payments/court cases, all because of the police’s inability to investigate crime”   and “All the locals seem to know they were illegally distilling vodka so why didn’t the police know??”.

Lesson – as well as the opportunity to investigate crime, forces need to consider community tensions as expressed online, and to use the opportunities presented by comments such as all the local knew this was going on to seek intelligence about the incident and possibly prevent other tragedies occurring. I use the word tragedy deliberately, as the following comment, posted on a YouTube video of the incident seems a good way to drive my point home.

5 dead immigrants...

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Don’t believe the hype – Policing Today

Quick plug for my latest article for Policing Today – http://www.policingtoday.co.uk/Content/Doc.aspx?id=860

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Secret Policing

As forces (and indeed the entire criminal justice system) become more involved with private partners and third sector providers to deliver policing services, is there a danger that transparency and accountability will be reduced?

Even collaboration between forces requires a significant amount of debate, agreements and legal documents to make it work. When you add in results based measurement and payments to commercial bodies, there is a danger that the mechanisms for proving those results and for making those payments become difficult if not impossible to follow for the non-lawyer. At best the size of contractual documents, and the legalese wording in them is off putting; at worst some companies will insist on confidentiality in contracts to protect their profits and commercial secrets.

Chief Superintendent Matt Greening from Hampshire notes in his blog when talking about the merger of Scottish police forces, “As collaboration picks up speed some forces will soon reach a tipping point where joint working has taken them so far that merging is the inevitable next step.” I suspect that mergers and increased collaboration with other police forces is one tactic that forces will follow; another is increased collaboration with the private sector reaching a similar tipping point where from a public perspective it will be difficult to see where a police force ends and a private contractor begins.

So am I saying that all private contracts are bad, and all private companies are out just to make a profit? Absolutely not! What I am saying is that the companies that are involved in this market need to keep their ethical and moral standards high, and not hide behind legal contracts which could reduce rather than enhance transparency. As more and more of what was once core policing becomes deliverable by the private sector, it would be good to see a real push from the leading forces and companies involved towards open and transparent arrangements, delivering real partnerships based on openness, trust and above all the principle of transparency and accountability for the public.

This is achievable, desirable, and I suspect that the public expect nothing less.

 

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Social Media Handbook for Police: Part 13

CartoonWelcome to the the next instalment in my series of social media tips. These are aimed primarily at a police audience, but hopefully applicable to a wider group of people too, especially those in the public sector. This series of posts will aim to identify some good practice and useful hints and tips for police officers and staff to consider when using social media.

Part 13: Policing Disasters

Parts 10, 11 and 12 of the handbook tackled using social media in public order and major investigations. As I said there, I hear a lot of scepticism about whether it is any use operationally –  so called ‘real policing’.

Disasters

No this is not alist of policing disasters, but rather the way in which police forces can proactively use social media to improve how disasters such as floods and other natural or man-made events are handled.

You might assume that the first thing to stop in any major disaster would be the communications network. This may well have been the case in the past, but a cellular communications netwrok is surprisingly resilient, and of course the internet was built to route around any problem areas or blackspots. Mobile phones contained their own power supply, and most will continue trying to connect to the network after a user has sent a text or other update. It therefore makes sense for organisations that may have to respond to large scale disasters to consider how best to harness the power of social media in their response.
Social media is a great way to keep information flowing during and after a disaster. Increasingly the public don’t just seek information online, but create it and provide mutual support. This data is real time intelligence which will provide myriad ‘eyes on the ground’ and give multiple points for important public safety announcements to be passed on.
Brian Humphrey from Los Angeles Fire DEpartment has been quoted as saying that “every citizen is a sensor”. What the public do is throw that information out into the void of Twitter or Facebook, and agencies need to consider in advance how to respond to, filter, verify, and make use of all the data. Obviously it should not be the only source of intelligence, but as Martin Brunt from Sky News said at the ACPO conference in July 2011 “for the first hour of major story we relied entirely on Tweets from the public to report. These proved very reliable when eventually confirmed.”  
Tips to get started
  • Start early – it is much easier to get a message out if people already follow you and trust you.
  • Figure out your trusted sources early – similarly if you have existing social media accounts you know you can trust, it will make it easier to sift intelligence from rumour.
  • Know how information can be passed to those on the ground – this requires a mechanism to filter and assess what may be thousands of Tweets and updates, and the best way to pass useful information to people on the ground.
  • Know how social media platforms can complement your traditional media, and consider moving your prime effort to social media in the early stages of an incident
  • Allow updates from the field – as I keep saying, social media is a two-way process. Your officers and staff need to know how to use social media, and have appropriate permission and technology to do so before disaster strikes.

So ask yourself – if it happened tomorrow, how ready is your organisation?

 
Other parts:
Part 1:What Social Media Networks should I use?
Part 2:How do I get followers / friends ?
Part 3:Policy / Strategy / Guidance 
Part 4: Ten things to have on your page to drive up interest
Part 5: What to do when things go wrong
Part 6:We don’t do that here 
Part 7: Twitter and Flick’r 
Part 8: Link it all together
Part9:Talk to Local People 
Part10:Operational Uses 
Part 11:More Operational Uses
Part 12:Operational use – Policing Protest
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Social Media Handbook for Police: Part 12

CartoonWelcome to the the next instalment in my series of social media tips. These are aimed primarily at a police audience, but hopefully applicable to a wider group of people too, especially those in the public sector. This series of posts will aim to identify some good practice and useful hints and tips for police officers and staff to consider when using social media.

Part 12: Even More Operational Uses

Parts 10 and 11 of the handbook tackled using social media in public order and major investigations. As I said there, I hear a lot of scepticism about whether it is any use operationally –  so called ‘real policing’.

Intelligence

Early adoption of social media can pay dividends when looking for intelligence. Whether it is in response to community concerns, seeking witnesses to identify graffiti tags, or in getting an early heads up on protest marches, social media has a part to play alongside traditional methods of policing.

Policing of Protests

EDL/UAF protestOne of the best examples of using social media in policing of protest marches was for an English Defence League (EDL) march in the West Midlands. The tweets below are from the EDL supporters, the general public and the police, and use the #EDL hashtag so people can follow the conversation. The police simply use the same hashtag to talk to those involved.

The conversation starts with EDL supporters drumming up support for their march:

EDL >Protest in Dudley today, come and support #EDL

This is then picked up and ReTweeted by the public to their followers, spreading the message:

Public >RT Protest in Dudley today, come and support #EDL

Then it starts to get interesting…

EDL >Muslims with knives rioting in Dudley #EDL

Public >RT 100s Muslims with knives rioting in Dudley – get here! #EDL

At this stage things look like they are getting out of hand.

Police>There are no Muslims rioting in Dudley – all quiet #EDL

Public >RT police say There are no Muslims rioting in Dudley – all quiet #EDL

Notice how the police clarification is spread by ReTweets by the public. Then the EDL supporters try again:

EDL >#EDL supporter stabbed by Muslim in Dudley
Public >RT #EDL supporter stabbed by Muslim in Dudley – come and support us
Police>#EDL no one stabbed, this is misinformation. Follow for accurate facts

At this stage the public start to realise who is the trusted source in this conversation:

Public >#EDL misinformation being spread by EDL – listen to police tweets
Public >#EDL police say no one has been stabbed- EDL lying

That doesn’t stop the EDL supporters trying again:

EDL >#EDL police allowing muslims to attack whites in Dudley
Police>#EDL no one has been attacked in Dudley
Public >#EDL don’t react to EDL lies – police say no one been attacked
Public >#EDL thank you police for accurate tweets
 

As you can see this time the public are not fooled. A number of forces have since used similar tactics to talk to march organisers and participants in real time as the event occurs. Nick Keane from the NPIA likes to say ‘imagine that the police voice was missing, and how the conversation might have changed then‘.

Cartoon

Other parts:
Part 1:What Social Media Networks should I use?
Part 2:How do I get followers / friends ?
Part 3:Policy / Strategy / Guidance 
Part 4: Ten things to have on your page to drive up interest
Part 5: What to do when things go wrong
Part 6:We don’t do that here 
Part 7: Twitter and Flick’r 
Part 8: Link it all together
Part9:Talk to Local People 
Part10:Operational Uses 
Part 11:More Operational Uses
Part 12:Operational use – Policing Protest
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