Social networks hold out a number of potential benefits for policing, on the one hand as a source of information on criminal activity, and on the other as a channel for communicating with the general public. Police stations everywhere are now setting up ‘virtual’ units that work via social network platforms.
Should the police be using social media? After all an increasing number of public institutions everywhere are now setting up online departments. The researchers and police experts from ten European countries taking part in the COMPOSITE (COMparative POlice Studies In The EU) project, who have just published a report entitled ‘Best Practice in Police Social Media Adaptation’, have no doubt at all about the value of social media in police work. Their investigations have focused on the form which that social media use should take and exactly how to get the most out of this approach. Social network platforms are an effective means of communication when it comes to sending out messages on a large scale, which is particularly useful in emergencies such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters, but they can be very useful in other situations as well. Having a presence online is likely to have a direct effect on the relationship between the police and the general public in several different ways, argue the COMPOSITE authors.
Social networks show the human side of policing
By bringing greater transparency into policing, social networks are likely to help create a climate of trust and foster better interaction with the general public. The personal style of communication which is typical of Web 2.0 is a big plus here, contrasting sharply with the bureaucratic-sounding statements that are typical of public administration. In the United Kingdom, the use of social websites is now an integral part of police station work. UK police stations act as a sort of press service, where police officers can keep colleagues at the station informed about actions they have taken. They also send out alerts and process arrest warrants and search warrants.
‘Virtual cop’ joins the force
The COMPOSITE report underlines that Web 2.0 has now become a new public space to be occupied and argues that police forces should be online and visible. To cite an example, in April 2011 the Helsinki police moved three of their officers to full-time posts as ‘virtual’ police officer working on a number of social media sites. Within just a few months, they had received around 250 reports from the general public. The Netherlands has also created the post of ‘virtual policeman’. Nevertheless, there still remain some major questions of a legal nature, especially in Germany, where the concept of collaborating with service providers such as Facebook and Twitter and, more generally, working with private companies based abroad, is a thorny issue. However, in some other countries, such as the UK and the Netherlands, the legal hurdles to be overcome are much less high.