“Shouldn’t You Be Out Catching Criminals?”
Over the last week or so I have seen a couple of tweets directed at official police accounts which have asked the following question “Shouldn’t you be out catching criminals instead of tweeting?”
It’s an interesting question and one I would like to address.
One of the primary roles of the police is to “catch criminals” – of course it is – but it is not the only role.
The first question to ask is HOW do you catch criminals?
We all know that there are not enough officers in the world to have a police officer on every street. Even if things weren’t so financially constrained this would never ever happen. Therefore it is not a case of using critical mass and swarming the country with a uniformed presence in order to prevent and detect crime.
The way it is done is by the use of intelligence and analysis. There are a finite number of resources and so they have to be put in the right place at the right times.
It isn’t a case of sticking a finger in the air and hoping for the best. Crime trends and patterns will be examined; information on offenders recently released from prison will be known; proactive work by officers stopping and speaking to people will help.
At the conclusion of a short period of analytical work there should be sufficient information available to confidently deploy resources where they can achieve the most good.
This is intelligence led policing.
Computers and spreadsheets will tell us so much but there is no real substitute for either catching someone in the act or being told something we didn’t know by someone.
You might be surprised at what information can be gleaned or learned from a simple innocuous conversation.
Many years ago, as a local beat officer, I had three main sources of intelligence.
1. Crime Data
2. Conversations with other professional agencies working in the same area.
3. Conversations with the people who lived in my area.
Crime Data used to provide scientific or numerical intelligence.
The other agencies could give me themes or supporting information but it was the conversations with residents which used to provide the colour and the detail I was missing.
It was usually these conversations which enabled me to take more specific action than simply placing myself in the right place at the right time and hoping for something to happen.
People wouldn’t freely give this information. Some would and I didn’t then employ Jedi mind tricks in order to get information out of them it became a matter of trust.
I would speak to people about anything, the weather, sport, the news, local events and eventually it led to a rapport building up.
In some cases people would mention a very minor issue to me which had been bothering them for ages – a badly parked car, some anti-social behaviour and I would say I would see what I could do about it.
When I DID do something about it – they noticed. Perhaps it changed their opinion of the police or of me personally but gradually people could see that if they talked to me I would try to help.
I would speak to people in two main arenas. The local housing office which I used as a de facto police station and they knew I would be there or contactable from there (thus saving themselves a drive of a couple of miles or a phone call) or whilst walking or driving around my beat.
If you were cutting your hedge, washing your car or popping to the local shops I would stop and have a chat.
I used to use local town meetings as another vehicle to explain what police were doing about certain issues. I would ensure that the local councillors were fully up to speed with police activity so that they could answer questions their parishioners might ask.
I wrote articles for local magazines and the local newspaper – always in the hope that someone would read it and think “ah – the police are doing something about X problem.”
Again – once people knew I was trying to tackle something and was doing something about a problem it led to more information coming in.
This information was vital – as were the conversations I was having with people.
The conversations led to trust – the trust led to conversations and trust.
Of course – whilst I was having those conversations, or attending the meetings or writing the articles I was not actively “catching criminals.”
However, the by product of doing all those things led to me or my colleagues catching criminals.
Back then I had to rely on the parish magazine or mail shots to get messages out but things have moved on a bit in that time.
I had no way of sending out messages to people on mass.
Social media gives police that tool.
Any police officer will tell you that the most important piece of equipment they own is their pocket book. This was even picked up in the film “Hot Fuzz.”
After that I firmly believe that the most important piece of equipment an officer has is their mouth. It is this which can talk you or someone else out of danger; to interview people; to talk to people; to reassure people; to build trust.
Social media is another mouthpiece. Used effectively it is another way of talking and communicating.
When I was talking to people I wouldn’t do it in an officious way either. These were genuine human conversations where pleasantries and smiles were exchanged.
I have used this analogy before but the alternative would have been for me to walk around in uniform carrying a board, covered in crime prevention leaflets and refusing to speak to anyone because I should be “catching criminals.”
We have all heard complaints about robotic, jobsworth, authoritarian cops who dispassionately issue tickets and show no glimmer of soul. That is not what policing should be about.
As a local officer I wanted to be part of the community and that meant I had to integrate with the community. To do that I needed to sometimes be a “friend in uniform” or at the very least a “human in uniform.”
I could turn up at local meetings and simply read out a list of crime incidents. As a neighbourhood Inspector I went to one such meeting and watched one of my PC’s do exactly that. I could also see the look on the faces of the generally elderly audience who were probably more frightened by what he said than reassured.
There was no context, no narrative, no humour and no humanity. I spent some time with that officer afterwards where we talked about delivery and content.
The important thing for me to tell him was that these meetings should be a conversation not a list of meaningless and potentially frightening numbers.
To achieve that he had to be himself and not an automaton in uniform. It had simply never occurred to him that this was allowed and actually led to better results.
In all of my conversations with the people I serve there is a place for light heartedness, personality and even jokes. It doesn’t block a serious message or a serious presence but it can break down barriers and build trust.
My argument would be that using social media is a very powerful method of community engagement.
Community engagement leads to information sharing and trust.
To use social media effectively it should be a conversation not a “notice board”
That there is a place for humour and soul in these conversations and that these conversations ultimately lead to criminals being caught – even if that isn’t obviously apparent.
You cannot police in silence.
You cannot effectively communicate if you talk AT people instead of WITH people.
To talk WITH people you have to be one of the people.
Officious and Bland messages have a place but should only form part of the overall engagement strategy.
Social Media is no different from any other form of communication or conversation. It is a community within itself and should not be ignored.
You only need to look at the followings that the most engaging accounts have to realise that they must be doing something right.
As a local officer – if I had the opportunity to get a message out to 25,000 people at the single press of “send” then I would have bitten your hand off to take it. The possibilities this presents are almost limitless.
How do you get to 25,000 followers? By being interesting, informative, human and engaging. By having dialogue.
A police account could put out nothing but “vanilla tweets” but I bet it won’t have anywhere near this following.
Shouldn’t we be out catching criminals?
Frankly – we are – all the time – but it would be a damn sight harder if we didn’t use every available means to engage with people first.