The police service and social media

By Karen Bullock

As someone who makes little use of social media – and certainly never Tweets – it is perhaps somewhat ironic that I have recently found myself doing research on the police use of social media. This stems from a wider interest in the nature of police engagement with citizens and communities. In light of various crises of legitimacy, police-citizen engagement has been promoted over many years. However, citizen participation has been difficult to establish and maintain. Further, those who do participate are usually white, middle-class members of the ‘establishment’ and traditional engagement meetings often function to broadcast information rather than to stimulate debate and dialogue. In contrast, reflecting its open and interactive nature, there has been optimism that social media will facilitate wide participation and transform the communicative practices of the public police in England and Wales. It has been hoped that open and collaborative networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchap along with Wikies and the blogosphere will facilitate dialogue and debate between citizens and police institutions. Indeed, catapulting engagement from the physical to the virtual, social media has been adopted by many contemporary police leaders and by policing teams with the explicit aim of fostering relationships and in so doing facilitating citizen participation. Less is documented, however, about whether social media can achieve these aims, which is where my research comes in.

I found that whilst many of the rhetorical devises present in policy and academic discourses regarding the mooted benefits of using social media were present in the accounts of officers and staff who participated in my study, it was less clear that benefits were translated in to practice. Certainly social media can generate large audiences but it is much less clear that it has diversified the nature of that audience. In addition, rather than stimulate debate, I found that much output is one-way and rarely involves collaborative problem-solving between constabularies and citizens. In short, my research suggested that it is unclear whether the potential of social media to promote citizen participation and transform communicative practices will be realised in practice. My argument is that the transformative potential of social media has been shaped by the ways that officers and staff interpret the technology and incorporate it into their day-to-day routines. Organisational, technological and cultural dynamics come together to affect the nature of communicative practices on social media and this can mute its potential. For example, through actively engaging with social media and promoting its use or otherwise, the attitude and behaviour of chief officers can act to facilitate or mute officer use of social media. Communications teams, who can be nervous about losing control of corporate messages, exert more or less control of officer and staff use of social media. Too much control, I argue, stymies forms of communication which are engaging and responsive to citizens. Training for officers and staff who use, or want to use, social media is neither always provided nor of good quality and guidance is quite general. The result of this is that communication on social media is generally directed by ‘common sense’ and learnt over time by trial and error. Born of its novelty in the policing arena, officers and staff can be nervous of social media. Officers are used to formal forms of communication which rubs up against the informal communications styles that social media call for. Police ICT is under resourced and that the introduction of social media platforms – which are generally free, open and require light programming – is at odds with established cultures of ICT development which tend to be cautions, security conscious and risk adverse. Twitter, the dominant platform used by police officers and staff, supports a structure for dialogue and deliberation but primarily lends itself to use as a broadcasting tool (for sharing press releases, publicizing meetings, sending crime prevention advice) rather than serious deliberation.

What then does all of this mean for the role that social media might play in promoting police-community engagement? I would suggest that those who embrace bold visions that social media will generate high-level debate and deliberation between constabularies and citizens and in so doing enrich decision making, ensure the priorities for officers and staff are oriented around those of citizens and enable citizens to hold constabularies to account will most likely be disappointed. Those who see the potential of social media in more modest terms – to raise awareness, to impart information and advice, to alert citizens to other ways to engage with officers on and off line – might have more reason to be optimistic. Come what way, going beyond broadcasting will require commitment and wherewithal from constabularies. To use social media to more effectively and to promote citizen participation constabularies will need to recognise and respond to the organisational, individual and cultural dynamics which shape its use. Without changes to the attitudes of chief officers and communications teams, investment in training and guidance and ICT and shifts in cultural standpoints, we are unlikely to see a move towards meaningful citizen participation in public policing using social media. At the time of writing, social media seems to be much more to do with selling the police organisation rather than buying in to the ideal of citizen participation. To transform communicative practices this dynamic will have to be reversed.


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