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The Virtual Policing project: Local policing for local people

By February 25, 20112 Comments

Yesterday we hosted a catch-up workshop/meeting for the members of the Virtual Policing project, which is looking at how a number of Sussex police officers can use a range of social media to engage with the public. It’s a bit different from the standard ‘tweeting policeman’ model, in that we’re trying to measure the impact that this interaction has – effectively how it changes the relationship the public has with police.

It was, I think, a fantastic day. We didn’t just learn how the officers are beginning to use social media, but what they hope to get out of it, the problems and pressures that arise from its use and the ways that it is changing policing.

In the first part of the day we just chatted about people’s experiences so far. Quite a few things came out:-

  • Different forms of social media work for different people – so some officers prefer Twitter to Facebook and vice versa. It just depends on what kind of work you are looking to do, the people you hope to reach and your own personal views. Twitter was liked by a lot of people because it is easy to use, open and simple. Facebook – with groups, pages and profiles – was complicated and – as one participant put it – ‘clunky’.
  • The speed with which social networking works means that the impact of a message can end up out of proportion with your intentions. Something you hoped would help a few people could be read by thousands – and be picked up by journalists. As a result, what seems an innocent, reasonable remark can have an unintended and disproportionate impact on other people and their work.
  • As a result, real, concrete support from senior officers is vital for those officers who are using social media – and it’s essential to have good guidance on precisely what you can and can’t say.
  • There are opportunities that are emerging to make contact with different people and to change the effectiveness of meetings and other forms of ‘offline engagement’ work. Being imaginative about the tools you use and how you communicate can make a real difference.
  • Real value from social media is about making contact with real people in your area. We’ve learned that it’s relatively easy to get social media types and other police to follow you, but what really makes a difference to neighbourhood policing is the real people that are in your area – local policing for local people, as it were!
  • It’s possible – particularly with Twitter, and with a smart phone – to fit using social media into the small pockets of downtime that the job might naturally provide, so it doesn’t need to be a suck on time.

I think a lot of this makes immediate, obvious common sense but there’s a difference between learning something and hearing it said. What I think was most interesting and exciting about the session was that we started to really develop practical ideas about how this kind of engagement work might help to add value or improve the engagement work that’s already taking place.

As Sergeant Peter Allan (@SgtPeterAllan) pointed out, some of the meetings that neighbourhood policing teams do can be poorly attended. The social media tools we’re exploring offer an opportunity to find ways to talk and share things with the public on their own terms – when and where they want to.

Peter’s point that people may prefer to have their relationship with police online is a really important one – and a primary reason for the growing interest in social media. With that in mind, we spent some time looking at where people are beginning to gather online – from blogs, Facebook, forums and other forms of social networking. The next part of the project is to see how the officers can begin to make contact with these groups so that we can begin to find out more about how these relationships can benefit both the police and the public. Next report soon!

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