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Police social media officers – what’s the point?

What does a police social media officer do all day, and is it of any value? A recent article by The Sun suggests not and the response to it shows others have their doubts.

CC Stephens portrait.jpgSocial is now an integral part of how we police and how we engage with communities that are connected online. Far from being a waste of resource, social media officers help us to be more efficient in preventing and detecting crime and keeping people safe.

Every single day they assist their uniformed and detective colleagues to find missing people and trace dangerous suspects – reaching more people, more quickly and with more accuracy than knocking on doors or dropping leaflets. Social media allows us to share information quickly and easily with the right people, and in the right places, and operational colleagues know that this often unlocks a case and prevents further crime. They’ve also become the first port of call for many during emergencies like terror attacks or major floods or storms, alerting the public and providing fast-time warnings that help save lives.

Police comms teams around the country have so many examples of social media making a real difference. These are a just a few:

  • Durham Constabulary issued a CCTV image of a man they wanted to speak to following a burglary in which two high value Range Rovers were stolen. Within a day of the appeal being posted on social media, the offender’s mother rang in to say it was her son in the picture and he was arrested.
  • A man sadly died after being pulled from the sea in Scarborough. North Yorkshire Police did not have any information about his identity. Following a Facebook appeal they identified him within 24 hours.
  • Dyfed Powys Police issued an appeal for information about a man wanted for murder. A member of the public saw the appeal, recognised the man on a public beach and reported him. He was arrested, charged and subsequently jailed.
  • In Surrey, during a series of burglaries the force used Facebook to warn people in postcodes where the offences were taking place and give them crime prevention advice. Officers said this helped reach people who may not have been in when they were making house calls and sped up the process.
  • The Metropolitan Police Service launched a campaign that celebrated 100 years of female police officers in the force with social media playing a key part. The campaign led to a significant increase in applications from women.

Using a range of social channels means we can speak to people and get involved in the conversation where it’s already happening. A survey conducted by forces in 2018 found that 51 per cent of respondents viewed social as their preferred method of contacting police about non-emergency issues; this requires that contact management staff work closely with professional communicators.

In the same survey, 90 per cent of respondents viewed the police as a credible and trusted source of information. When emergencies happen, these people are turning to police social channels for information and advice, and then sharing that advice with their friends and families. During the recent Whaley Bridge dam collapse, Derbyshire Constabulary (along with other emergency services) posted 147 updates, which were then shared 21,000 times.

Social media helps us show how crimes are solved, building confidence in the criminal justice system. This week, my force shared bodycam footage of the arrest of a 34-year-old man on a plane to Ethiopia (with a one way ticket), four days after he'd had sex with a 14 year old girl. Over a series of tweets we explained how the 14 year old was first reported missing, how she was found and how specialist officers worked with her to gain her trust and then arrest him.

A career in policing, wherever it is, is hugely rewarding. But it can also be demanding, fast-paced and with high stakes. This means police communicators must be prepared to respond at pace to the unexpected, sometimes work unsociable hours and be accountable for any mistakes. The right people are needed to do the job, and we need to ensure pay reflects their skill and experience.

Modern policing needs a range of people with different skills, different backgrounds and doing different roles but crucially working together for the same outcomes – preventing crime, solving it and keeping people safe.

National Police Chiefs' Council Lead for Social Media and Digital Engagement, CC Gavin Stephens