Tweeting police officers: forces need to make a more relaxed attitude

A series of stories emerged a few weeks ago surrounding several police Twitter accounts being “closed”. First there was a PCSO in Exeter who claimed that she had been “instructed to cease tweeting” following a complaint by a student guild.  Devon & Cornwall Police explained that she had instead been offered training and the account is active again.  Around the same time, a West Midlands officer was demoted, apparently due to Twitter misuse, while five Twitter accounts in Northamptonshire were abandoned following a HMIC inspection.  This worries me: it feels like forces are attepting to shut the problem off at source, rather than considering the cultural role of social media.

Gordon Scobbie, who leads nationally on social media for the police, commented

“It comes down to the culture of an organisation and the degree of trust you have in your frontline officers. You have to allow them to make mistakes and deal with them as a mistake, rather than coming down heavily on them.”

DCC Scobbie has a thankless task but is absolutely correct. Police officers are given a huge amount of trust and responsibility in their role, not to mention extensive legal powers; yet there is a risk that these recent stories give the impression that officers are not trusted enough to talk.

Of course, “front line” officers are highly visible, are fully accountable for their actions and words, and need to communicate with myriad people every day. Indeed it feels ridiculous to even suggest that the police wouldn’t be talking to the public on a regular basis – it’s what they do. What the powers that be seem to be failing to realise is that social media is just an alternative communication method. Good police officers aren’t machines; they’re human beings and behave like real people in their dealings with the public. They are perfectly capable of giving personal opinions whilst in uniform, as long as those opinions are appropriate and not on sensitive issues.

Perhaps an argument could be made that social media posts can be easily amplified and are permanent. But that implies that an off-the-cuff remark that only a few people hear is less damaging, which is entirely the wrong impression to give. Furthermore, if an officer says things that are inappropriate, it will only be a matter of time before they say the wrong thing to the wrong person, who can amplify it in a similar way to social media (a politician or journalist, for example). It’s also worth pointing out that being in the public eye isn’t necessarily a guarantee that somebody doesn’t say something out of line – as Sally Bercow et al are finding at the moment (as an aside, it is interesting that Lord McAlpine’s lawyer seemed to suggest yesterday that they may focus their litigation on the most viral/prominent tweets, having hired a social media agency to help).

Another problem is that there is a sliding scale of “legitimacy” of social media channels:

Official corporate police force and local neighbourhood accounts
Sanctioned, identifiable accounts of individual officers
Personal accounts of named officers who make little or no reference to being a police officer
Unsanctioned, but benign, accounts of anonymous police officers (you could also include activity on police forums such as Police Oracle  or PoliceSpecials in this category)
Unsanctioned “whistleblower” blogs which are far from benign (Inspector Gadget being the most prominent example)

All of these exist in abundance and a sweeping social media policy will find it difficult to cover all these bases. However, they all boil down to one common factor: simple communication. Using social media is as natural as talking these days and needs to be treated as such.

In many ways police officers are in a similar position to civil servants – perhaps “be seen and not heard”. The Cabinet Office has published extensive social media guidance for civil servants which, while lengthy and rather “civil servicey” if you’ll excuse the expression, has the right idea:

“Social media is a public forum and the same considerations apply as would, say, to speaking in public or writing something for publication either officially or outside of work…in social media the boundaries between professional and personal can sometimes become more blurred – so it’s important to be particularly careful…take care about commenting on government policies and practices, particularly those which your own Ministers are responsible for. Avoid commenting altogether on controversial issues affecting the responsibility of your own Ministers…”

This feels intuitively correct. In a similar way, surely police officers should be encouraged to speak naturally on social media and (shock) actually express some opinions; but similarly to the civil service guidance, there would be areas which are “off limits” (personal views on cannabis legislation, for example, might be unwise, especially if they went against official policy).

It’s not just the public sector, either: I remember hearing from a the social media manager at a large financial institution whose approval process for a single tweet took a week (not surprisingly, at the time social media wasn’t their strong point).

Social media already has a huge role in public engagement and intelligence gathering and this will continue to grow in both areas. But as Ipsos MORI research shows, the police remain one of the more trusted professions  – it will be worrying if they are not trusted to speak for themselves.

Eoghan O’Neill is social listening analyst at Ipsos MORI; he is also a serving Special Constable (these are his own personal views and do not represent the Metropolitan Police or any other force in any way). He is on Twitter at EoghanLondon and also blogs sporadically.