A Question of Trust

Let’s start with a little game…

Which of these is the odd one out?

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Give up?

Okay, the answer is the computer. Police officers are generally trusted to use the other five things.

Batons, CS, fast cars, tasers, even guns. All capable of causing pain. Some even capable of causing serious injury or death. All capable of hitting the headlines through their use, influencing public opinion or affecting the reputation of the police service. All requiring those who use them to be professional and accountable for their actions at all times.
And there’s nothing wrong with that is there? It is right that police officers are held accountable for their actions, especially if this involves the use of force or coercion. Our police service is founded on the principle of policing by consent – therefore the public must be able to trust us to carry out our duties and it rightly follows that we must be able to justify our actions.

So, what’s the difference with the computer then? Actually, it is there to represent social media – a phenomenon that has been around for much less time than fast(ish) police cars and firearms units. It also carries the potential to cause harm and impact on public confidence or the reputation of the police service. Used well, it can be a fantastic tool for genuine public engagement – feedback I have received goes along the lines that people like to see the human side of police officers. Guess what, we listen to music, go to the pub and do ‘normal’ stuff, just like you.

At the other end of the police social media spectrum lies the awkward, mechanical broadcasting associated with some corporate accounts. You can only be told so many times not to give your bank account details to complete strangers before you switch off, or read about how crime has decreased ‘compared to last year’ (statistically meaningless, but that’s another blog post). However, there is no doubt that, used well, social media is a brilliant medium for reaching out to people who might not otherwise come into contact with the police.

But there’s an underlying trust issue.

Unlike the confidence invested in the officers who routinely carry metal bars and noxious chemicals (i.e. batons and CS), there often seems to be a degree of organisational nervousness around police use of social media. Draconian social media policies seek to restrict and control the use of social media – I even know of electronic monitoring software that can be covertly deployed to ‘watch’ accounts. At the root of this fear seems to be the assumption that officers will do something stupid or illegal if left alone with their keyboards.
Personally, I have no problem with a computer programme checking whether I put naughty words like ‘****’ or ‘****’ on Twitter, as long as it is all done ethically and transparently. Any officer who puts words like that (or even ‘****’) all over their Facebook page deserves to be pulled up, as it is unprofessional and reflects poorly on the entire police service.

What I find hard to reconcile however, is the disparity between the institutional hunger for tighter control of social media versus the widely-accepted position that other conduct is simply subject to the Standards of Professional Behaviour. Guess what, nothing about social media use is exempt from the SOPB so if I call you a ‘****’ in the street it’s no different to me doing it on my Twitter account. Why the latter therefore seems to require an additional layer of regulations, I have no idea.

Yes, there are risks around the misuse of social media, but the police is an organisation that deals with risk all the time. There are risks associated with driving police cars at speed, hitting someone with that metal bar, or having to pull the trigger of your MP5 to save someone’s life. We are well-versed at managing these sorts of risks, but perhaps not so good at investing a bit of trust in PC Bloggs who just wants to communicate with the people who live on his patch. The key is in proportionality.

My view is that police use of social media should be encouraged, with officers simply expected to remain professional and accountable, in the same way as when they speak to a member of the public via any other medium. This can be achieved by simply adhering to the requirements of the Standards of Professional Behaviour. Restrictive policies do not supersede these requirements, plus they have the adverse effects of constraining innovation and damaging trust, internally and externally.

As Professor Russell Hardin says, “The gains from trust outweigh the savings from mistrust”.

Maintaining ‘trust and confidence’ begins at home.

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