Page last updated at 10:10 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

Police open up to social media

Screengrab of Pc Ed Rogerson's twitter page, Ed Rogerson
More and more beat bobbies are turning to Twitter.

PC Ed Rogerson is like many other beat bobbies. He patrols his patch, fights crime and gives out crime prevention advice. But in one respect he is different to almost every other copper walking a beat.

PC Ed Rogerson is on Twitter. He is one of about 20 or so police officers that have turned to the micro-blogging service.

He started using Twitter in October in a bid to reach more of the people that live along the streets he patrols in Starbeck, Harrogate.

"Twitter is the new thing," he said. "I'm just trying to keep up and communicate with people in Harrogate."

"It works on a far more local level than the force-wide Facebook group," he said. "It's local to Harrogate and our problems."

Some of his messages, or tweets, contain advice for residents. On occasion he announces an arrest. Others are just to let people know that, while they were out, the police were on patrol.

"People do not see us so they do not think we are there," he said.

North Yorkshire police are among the few forces using social media. Its Safer Neighbourhood teams use it to send out messages and it has reserved a page that will soon become its presence on Facebook.

"These kinds of social media are ultimately just another way of communicating with the public," Tom Stirling, North Yorkshire's web officer told the BBC.

"Posting a message on Twitter warning about a spate of burglaries in an area is a similar concept to pinning up a poster on the local parish council noticeboard."

"Doing either in isolation might be fine, but by doing both we can spread that warning even further."

Street talk

There is no national plan to make the police use social media, but its use by beat bobbies and many other officers is about to get a boost with the creation of the MyPolice website.

Fingerprint, BBC
Forces are finding that social media can be an investigative tool.

Set up by designers Sarah Drummond and Lauren Currie, it hopes to become a central point on which members of the public can relate the good and bad of their experiences with the police.

"Its creation stems from my friend getting robbed," said Ms Drummond.

"She didn't have a terrible experience but there were aspects of her case that she was not happy with."

In a similar way the site will log these problems, funnel them to the police and find out what happens to put things right.

"It's meant to be very bottom up," said Ms Drummond. "It'll engage with the bobby on the beat, community wardens and PCSOs. They are the ones seeing the problems at ground level."

She said: "It will give the police a chance to listen and they should be listening to people."

Ms Drummond said the plan is to run a closed pilot with a couple of forces before rolling it out more widely. The two designers are working on data visualisation tools to ensure that the site is easy to use for both the public and police.

Net gains

Even before MyPolice gets going some forces are pioneering widespread use of social media.

West Midlands police has redesigned its public website to work better with social media, it has Facebook pages for local areas, some officers are blogging. It has been known to use keywords, or hashtags, on Twitter to ensure people know its views about popular issues.

"We want to talk to people and allow people to talk to influence the way we police," said Inspector Mark Payne, a spokesman for West Midlands police. "Print media is shrinking and losing some of its traditional audience."

Forensics is fantastic, but it's people that solve crime
Inspector Mark Payne

"This is not about abandoning the traditional ways," he said. "More and more people are using social media to communicate and, if that's where people are talking, that's where we need to go."

"We can find out if we are doing the right things," said Inspector Payne. "Have we get a problem we do not know about?"

One of the reasons that West Midlands police got interested in social media was because it found it was the subject of discussions and videos on YouTube.

In a bid to put its point of view across it got involved with the discussions and now posts videos straight to its own channel on the site.

Facebook logo reflection in human eye, Getty
Police forces are finding it hard to ignore social media.

Nick Keane who works for the National Police Improvement Agency advising forces about social media, said West Midlands' experience was common.

"It's a matter for forces as to whether they use social media," he said. "If you are a force that doesn't that is a perfectly defensible thing."

"However," he added, "they cannot ignore it. The conversations about those forces carry on anyway."

Unless forces move to engage their critics or the concerns being aired on social media sites they risk having their role undermined, said Mr Keane.

The partiality of social media, especially video, often misses the context surrounding an incident leaving many with a false impression of what happened.

In light of this, West Midlands police used both Twitter and YouTube while policing a potentially rowdy demonstration mounted by the far right England and Wales Defence League (EDL) in Birmingham.

The police sent messages via Twitter using the hashtag created by EDL members to let protestors know what was, and was not, permissible during a demonstration. West Mids also posted their own video of the way the demo was policed.

Beyond helping the police reach out to communities, social media also has a definite operational benefit.

Information that has helped PC Rogerson round up persistent graffiti artists arrived via social media. Inspector Payne said West Mids' presence on Facebook has helped find a missing person and with a murder case.

"Forensics is fantastic, but it's people that solve crime," he said. "And this is just another way of talking to people."

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