I was reading an interesting blog post by one of my colleagues the other day, about how police forces are increasingly turning to social media networks such as Facebook and YouTube to help in the fight against crime...
In fact, social networks are proving to be such a rich source of information in certain crimes, that detectives can now attend a training course on techniques to help them gather evidence on sites such as Twitter. The post prompted me to reflect on how the police are also engaging with social media, not only as a research tool but as an additional and increasingly important communication channel to reach all of their diverse communities.
Last year PDMS were delighted to bring over Chief Inspector Mark Payne from West Midlands Police to the Island to present a really informative and entertaining seminar about his force's experiences of using social media. West Midlands Police were the original real trail blazers in this area, launching Facebook pages for local areas over two years ago and actively encouraging officers to blog and tweet. The force has also embraced different types of media including video, with PCTV featuring heavily on its website and footage regularly posted on the force's YouTube channel. They've found new and innovative ways of engaging with their audiences including the very popular "Pup Idol" videos which follow the latest litter of police dogs from their birth and cute phase right up to the point where they become operational and not quite so cuddly!
CI Mark Payne comments on his blog (http://cimarkpayne.wordpress.com), "Social media platforms provide us with an absolutely fantastic opportunity to have conversations with people, to recognise their problems and to tell them what we are doing about them."
Other forces are now recognising the value of social media which not only gives their communities a voice but also allows the police to engage in the conversation. Manchester Police got a lot of positive media coverage last year when it decided to tweet every incident it dealt with over a 24 hour period. The aim of the exercise was to raise awareness of the wide range of incidents that police officers have to deal with every day, many of which in reality aren't crime related. Over the period there were 3,205 tweets ranging from serious crimes to the more obscure reports of cows on the road and strange noises coming from a loft in Salford. The force's Twitter followers soared from 4000 to over 17,000 but the real point that the force was trying to make is that currently policing gets measured by the crimes recorded and detected and this simply doesn't reflect all the work they do on a day to day basis.
I've got first hand experience of one online project that is actively helping the UK Police by reducing the number of non-emergency calls they receive. That's because PDMS are technology partners to the Police National Legal Database (PNLD) Team based at West Yorkshire Police. PNLD are behind the successful national Police FAQ Portal www.askthe.police.uk, launched in 2005 and still going strong, which helps members of the public find answers to popular questions without having to phone up their local police force. The website contains nationally consistent answers to the 750 most frequently asked questions posed to the police ranging from what to do after a road accident to who to contact about rubbish being dumped in your neighbourhood. If a question you need an answer to isn't listed you can ask the question by e-mail and the team will add it, and the answer, to the portal
By encouraging members of the public to find out information on a dedicated portal instead of phoning the police with a non-emergency call, the FAQ portal has delivered substantial cost savings. There are now over 125,000 transactions on the database a month and with a non-emergency call lasting on average 3.5 minutes, that means 87,5000 hours at a cost of £1.75 million saved per year. The site is also delivering additional value as it is being used to train police Call-handling and Enquiry desk staff, ensuring that consistent answers are given no matter which of the 43 forces takes the call. This award winning project has now been launched in Scotland, with a new Scottish version of the portal www.askthe.scottish.police.uk.
The Police aren't immune from the current cut backs in public expenditure and with budgets being slashed and fewer police officers on our streets, the effective use of technology not only to drive efficiency but to also help improve communication with the communities they serve, will be paramount. With the Isle of Man Constabulary Northern Neighbourhood Policing Team already on Facebook, I wonder how long it will be before the Isle of Man has its very own bobbies on the tweet!