Picture credit: BTP
Artillery Row

The police have a posting problem

Social media can create institutional damage

Posting on social media rarely improves people’s reputations. Journalists, authors, actors, lawyers, academics — all have made themselves look foolish and obnoxious by cramming their worst impulses between 280 characters. Scientists turn out to be insanely irrational. Artists turn out to be uncouth boors. Comedians tend to be incredibly unfunny.

Who has done their reputation the worst damage, though? I think it’s the British police.

Once, the British bobby was perceived with a fair amount of respect. He wouldn’t gun you down like an American cop. He wouldn’t demand a bribe like a Russian politseyskiy. But he was stern and strong in the face of crime. Sure, there were scandals — some of them extremely serious. But the average copper was a reassuring presence.

I don’t want to claim that social media is the main factor in the decline in public confidence in the police. You can think of mind-melting recent controversies for yourself. But by God social media has not helped.

First, the police need a good excuse to be posting in the first place. After all, the cops are apparently so short of manpower and resources that they are solving fewer crimes than ever before. Only 5% of British burglaries and robberies are solved. If time and resources are going to be invested in social media, then, there should be good reasons. Appealing for information about missing people? Great! Appealing for information about crimes? Of course! Posting their fursonas? Y—What?

Yes, Cleveland Police have posted “amazing and unique artwork of one of our Redcar response officers” which shows him as a “furry” — an anthropomorphised cartoon animal of a kind often enjoyed by weird fetishists. “It is an innocent design created by a young girl,” the Cleveland Police account protested when people made fun of them. I’m not sure if the “innocent” design was created by a young girl or an adult troll. Either way, it is the police, not the artist, who were the butt of jokes.

This is an exceptionally strange and comic situation. Still, a deficient sense of the absurd has long been damaging the reputation of British police online. What about the time Scottish cops reminded people not to drink alcohol aboard trains by posing next to confiscated cans of Four Loco — as if it was a major haul of handguns and heroin? What about the time Derbyshire Police uploaded drone footage of people walking in the Peak District, miles from anywhere, to intimidate Brits into staying at home in 2020?

Such mindless meddling can have more serious consequences

Such mindless meddling can have more serious consequences. We know that the cops are prowling social media to arrest people for posting offensive jokes or rude or just unfashionable comments. Dangerous thieves can make off with your cars, and bikes, and laptops, and little interest will be shown in finding them. Be rude about a trans rights activist, though, and you might end up having your collar felt.

The police have made their intentions known on Twitter — threatening people who have supposedly been offensive. When Sussex Police referred to a trans sex criminal as a woman, for example, many users criticised them. Their official account then sniffed that they “do not tolerate any hateful comments towards their [i.e. the criminal’s] gender identity.” Meanwhile, Devon and Cornwall Police tweeted that “hate crime can be any criminal or non-criminal act such as graffiti, vandalism to a property, name calling, assault or online abuse on social media”, before apologising when they realised that their own definition of the law was incorrect. Very reassuring! As Tony Dowson wrote in these pages:

The police may well believe that they are protecting minorities too, but they have taken a wrong approach based on current political fashion, raising questions as to their partisanship. Statements made online which threaten members of the public with criminal investigation, predicated on a false view of law, undoubtedly have a chilling effect on free expression.

Of course, it would be very wrong to suggest that police officers are, to a man or woman, bleeding hearts desperately stamping down on insensitivity. First, this is primarily a problem with management. I suspect the average cop would be quite embarrassed to arrest someone for making a joke online. Second, rotten apples among the actual officers have very different problems with social media: sending each other invasive images from crime scenes, for example, or initiating inappropriate relationships. This far more malicious use of social media demands, and has incurred, serious repercussions.

But police authorities are not improving their standards or their reputation with overbearing progressivism, schoolmarmish finger-wagging and ham-fisted attempts at being relatable. Public-facing use of social media should factor in that British people do not want to see the cops on Twitter, rather than the streets, unless they have a good reason to be there. (Yes, I’m sure that some kind of administrator posts rather than a PC but people want to know that they are swallowing resources for a good reason too.) 

Police officials should also have a better sense of the absurd — and of their priorities. Monitoring social media is an important part of police work. Murders are planned. Paedophiles swap filth. Terrorists are recruited. Stolen goods are auctioned off. Irritable TERFs and people making edgy jokes on Twitter? Not such a big deal.

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