Hashtag murder: the surreal world of police on Twitter

From sharing pictures of hunting knives to snapping strawberry tarts, how using social media is transforming the public perception of the police.

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“The chilling moment you hear your friends and colleagues screaming down the radio calling for help as they are attacked...”

After two of his colleagues were assaulted on duty, an officer of the Lewisham Metropolitan Police Service took to Twitter to share these words with the world. Posting at 5:25am last Saturday, he announced the news not to his personal followers, but to the 26,700 followers of the official @MPSLewisham account.

Anyone familiar with the “That moment when” meme will find it unusual that a formula usually reserved for stories of social awkwardness was used in this way. But the tone and topic of this tweet reflect the refreshingly haphazard nature of many local police Twitter pages. “We are trying to show we’re human,” says Sergeant Jon Biddle, who is responsible for the day-to-day running of Lewisham’s account.

Biddle didn’t post the tweet in question, but he does write the majority of the tweets, signing his off with #SgtBiddle or a policeman emoji that the account's followers know represents him. Like most local police accounts, the Twitter page hosts a variety of topics, from the customary missing people announcements to the more unusual pictures of knives officers have confiscated during stop-and-search campaigns. Biddle also likes to regularly update the followers with the number of people in the station’s cells.

“We’re the biggest police station in Europe, we’ve got 30 odd cells,” he says. “The tweets show the officers are actually out there arresting people for some fairly nasty offences and it’s better that they’re in cells where the public are safe from them.”

Despite the logic behind the tweets, they can be jarring. Using the hashtag #murder to talk about the loss of a man’s life, or referring to the “great arrest” of a 41-year-old male who sexually assaulted a minor can seem flippant and facetious from the force we trust to protect social order.

“You’ve got 140 characters so you’re trying to get as much info in there as possible,” says Biddle, when I ask about this. “You have to try to be appropriate but one person’s appropriate will be… well, someone will always take issue with something.”

The police are given guidelines about how to run their accounts. The College of Policing has an Authorised Professional Practice (APP) on social media, which advises officers to be “credible”, “consistent”, “responsive”, “inclusive”, and “personable”. There are some firm rules – for example, most accounts include some variation of “DO NOT report crime on Twitter. In emergencies always call 999” in their biographies – but, most of the time, officers use their own judgement based on the guidelines.

“It’s a judgement call – we don’t get it right all the time,” says Biddle, who admits they have deleted tweets in the past. “But we try to keep it humorous so it’s not all doom and gloom. On the same day we tweeted about recovering a big hunting knife off someone, one of my sergeants put up a picture of a lovely strawberry tart. It’s not just about serious things; we try to cover everything and give it a sense of humour.”

This means that local accounts like Lewisham’s are often in sharp contrast to the calculated and clinical tweets of the overall Metropolitan Police. It is yet to be seen which is most beneficial for the public perception of the police. Unlike most bland brands on Twitter, the police are now allowed a personality, something that could be invaluable in a country where 54 per cent of people feel a “deep malaise” towards the “competence and procedures of the police”.

Enter Vine Cop. Started in September 2015 by 32-year-old Mark Walsh of the Hampshire police, Vine Cop is a social media account that shares six-second clips visualising messages about fastening your seatbelt, locking your doors, and using bicycle lights. Walsh uses costumes, songs, and Snapchat filters to get the messages across, and shares the Vines on his personal Twitter account, which has over 16,000 followers.

“I was inspired to start making Vines after consulting with young people,” says Walsh, who works on the Strategic Partnerships Team and has always supported his local force with digital engagement. “We started to see a pattern suggesting that people tend to watch short videos.”

Although concerned about getting serious messages across in Vines, Walsh decided they were a better alternative than “a corporate poster on a wall”. Within three months, the account had over one million loops, and Walsh says he has had support from as far away as America, Australia, and Canada. “I have walked across playgrounds or been on duty and have been approached by people who have asked if I am the 'Vine Cop'. It is a great way to start a dialogue, even though when I ask if they follow me the reply I often get from the school children is 'Err no! We don't follow the police!’

“But that is absolutely fine because what is important to me is that accessibility. They don't have to follow me to know who I am, what my personality is like and to know if they need help they can approach me.”

Walsh says he is primarily motivated by the “strategic objective” of warning and informing the public, but his secondary motivation is to build relationships within the community and make himself accessible. “There are many American cops that use Vine and clearly their starting point is to make people laugh and or to make a living out of it. Many have been quite successful at this and I know of at three cops that have made a decent business out of what they do – but my motivations start off as being a cop first.”

Both Biddle and Walsh, then, aim to humanise the police. They are undeniably amiable and affable people  Biddle tweets at me thanking me as soon as we get off the phone. What's more, both officers have their own fans who appreciate what they do online. After Lewisham Police tweeted about the attack last Saturday, replies quickly flooded in checking the officers were okay and thanking them for their work.

“The only main criticism I have received has been from my peers,” says Walsh, who was invited to speak at the International Social Media Internet and Law Enforcement Conference in the USA . “It can actually be harder to take. Most of the criticisms have been due to their lack of understanding of social media and of their perception that while they are busy doing real police work, I am messing around on Vine. It’s a fair view, but the reality is the vast majority of the time and effort that goes into maintain a social media presence is done in your own time. There is not one Vine I have created which was done within my core duty time. To the annoyance of my family, it is usually done at home!”

I live in Lewisham, and would never have known about Sergeant Biddle and his team's work if it wasn't for Twitter. The media focus on policing's failures, so it's nice for forces to have an outlet where they can showcase their work themselvesq. While there are still many faults with the UK's policing system, you don't have to forgive or forget these to appreciate the faces behind the organisation.

People talk about social media as if it robs us of the Olden Days, when the sun constantly shone and you couldn't move for children playing on the streets. But in this instance, social media might bring in a new golden age of policing, where communities can engage with their local force on a previously unprecedented level.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

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