This coming week the use of social media within and by the police service is going to be discussed at a round table somewhere in Bramshill, so I thought it timely to volunteer some thoughts.
As is customary I will start by reaffirming these are my views and not necessarily representative of the two police forces I serve. This in itself is an interesting convention because it assumes that I am about to say something which may cause some anxiety, concern or litigation! I’m aiming to do none of them.
In writing this I know that some colleagues in both forces will already be feeling nervous and I can do no more than offer them and anyone else anxious at my access to the internet and a thesaurus, reassurance that I endorse and strive to conduct myself at all times within the Statement of Mission and Values for the Police Service.
My operating principle starts with the use of discretion, professional judgement and common sense. I can think of no better framework to guide my thoughts and actions.
So I tweet and blog about work and the police service in general. I also choose to discuss aspects of my home and personal life. I am very alert to the issues of personal security and safeguarding the privacy of my family. However I do not think they or I are jeopardised by my domestic revelations, cooking tips or commuting calamities.
Neither am I a self obsessed narcissist with an insatiable ego (no, I’m not!) who feels the need to discuss what I had for breakfast (toast) or who cannot function without knowing what other people think of me (really, you do?).
Whilst I am passionate about the vocation and profession of policing I do have a life (!!!) away from work where faith, family and friends help define me as a human being and I want to represent the service as a person not an avatar.
I use social media because I believe I have a positive obligation to engage and communicate about policing and it is an incredibly powerful way to connect with people. I have lost count of the number of times I have met people who already ‘knew’ me because of twitter. The vast majority of these occasions were really positive. We had started our ‘conversation’ and ‘connection’ with each other long before we met and although we were meeting about policing we were invariably talking about life. What a great place to start.
Yes, there have been interactions online and in person that have been less positive. Let’s be absolutely clear that phenomena did not start because of social media and no activity is devoid of risk. However, our role is to identify and manage risk.
In all my conduct as a police officer, both on and off duty, I am accountable for my decisions and actions and I operate on the basis that I need to be able to justify and explain myself. I also strive to act with integrity, compassion, courtesy and patience. The latter is a perennial challenge but I continue to work on it.
In factoring in all of the above I feel able to use social media to engage directly with communities, stakeholders and colleagues for the benefit of both policing and wider society.
I am conscious that as a senior police officer my views and thoughts are scrutinised and I think very carefully before pressing send. But this discipline is not defined by seniority or role and it is a necessary requirement to underline that, amongst other things, we must strive to show neither fear nor favour in what we do as representatives of the service.
Conversation, discourse and argument are all essential in a democracy (and a mainstay in my house) but they must be conducted in a spirit that is sensitive and dignified and which demonstrates respect for the human rights of all.
So this is my Modus Operandi for social media. But it is also my MO for life and work and I think that is the point. Other than limiting myself to 140 characters I don’t operate differently online than I do in meetings or with colleagues or communities.
Having this framework to work within is why I am able to be a vocal advocate of the wider use of social media in the police service. I want to positively support the use, not begrudgingly surrender to the inevitable. Too much time is taken up discussing what might go wrong at the expense of celebrating the huge impact policing has in positively transforming lives and communities and the part that social media should play.
Let’s be clear, any system can be misused. Anyone with a pencil can be an organisational terrorist but we don’t ban stationary. There have been and will be in the future, many transgressions of common sense and professional judgement via social media. The vast majority are preventable and rectifiable through education and a commitment from individuals and organisations to learn.
However, some are inexplicable, distasteful and unprofessional. My approach to this is uncomplicated. If you want to be offensive, rude or party political via social media or any other interaction then it is not compatible with your role and I believe you should be held accountable for your actions. This can be subjective stuff but integrity and professionalism are personal barometers and in posting comments the test of ‘what will people think’ appears often to have been overlooked.
The recent elections of Police and Crime Commissioners were an interesting test for the service. For the record it was not ACPO who constrained comment on candidates, policies or the electoral process by police officers. It was the law. To be specific, ‘The Representation of the People Act 1983’ and the ‘Police and Crime Commissioners Order 2012’.
As many offenders will tell you the law can be an inconvenience but our job is to uphold it, not ignore it.
I also think that the difference between marching en masse to demonstrate against changes to pay and conditions is a world apart from an individual placing personal commentary on the Government and individuals within it into the public domain.
However, this is not a vote for the Thought Police. I’ve lost count of the times I have been incensed by the inane commentary of a misinformed politician or pundit. But I’ve not gone and shared my thoughts with the wider world in an offensive or party political commentary. If and when I do, I won’t be fulfilling the Oath of Constable.
I am equally certain that some forces have over reacted or misconstrued the use of social media by their staff. Chief Officers, like everyone else, make mistakes. I’ll say that again. Chief Officers, like everyone else, make mistakes. They too need to be allowed the opportunity to learn and reflect.
But there will be cases where accounts need to be closed and misconduct proceeding taken against officers and staff. Unlike some journalists and politicians I don’t comment on cases that I am unsighted on and we know that facts can get in the way of a good story. I do recognise that both individuals and organisations have rights and that due process has to be followed.
This leads on to the vexed question of people who comment and communicate in a personal capacity. In my view, once you have identified yourself as a member of the police service you are bound by your professional responsibilities and subject to the same guidance and rules as if you were at work. So, I don’t think the public would expect you to talk to them using the F word so why would it be acceptable to include it in a tweet? You are no longer a private citizen and the ‘none official’ status of your account is, in my view, not a defence.
Encourage and enable people who want to speak for the service to do so as members of the service.
Provide them with the training and the ‘rules of engagement’.
Celebrate their success.
Help them learn from their mistakes.
Hold them to account when needed.
Overall embrace the opportunity to engage with communities.
If we did this then the fall back into anonymity would be unnecessary.
In my experience the vast majority of police users of social media, notwithstanding the associated risks, achieve successful outcomes and reduce the risk of harm to individuals and our communities.
And that, when all is said and done, is our Mission.