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Police use social media to communicate directly with citizens

Using social media to push information direct to the public

The COMPOSITE report found that many European police forces had taken the opportunities provided by social media to disseminate information directly to their target audiences.

Many had eagerly embraced the chance to get their exact message across without the press as an intermediary.

Most police forces have used a range of social media channels to publish information about their activities.

Once citizens have subscribed to these channels, social media is a relatively inexpensive means for police to reach a much larger proportion of their local communities with a steady stream of information.

Image: Mike Downes

What channel are you watching?

In the UK, police have mainly used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube with forces also using Flickr and Google+.

Mike Downes (@mikedownesmedia) has recently started an in-depth project analysing UK police use of different social media channels.

Some of his key findings in a survey conducted in January of this year (2013) were:

  1. 98% British police forces have a corporate Twitter account with an average of 18,000 followers
  2. 96% have Facebook accounts with over half a million people liking posts
  3. 94% have YouTube accounts with a total of more than 3,600 videos uploaded (West Yorkshire police lead the way with almost half a million views)
  4. 45% have Google+ accounts with an average of just 46 in each participating force’s circle
  5. Four police forces have started to experiment with Google+ live hangouts – a form of engagement that Mike is very keen on and a particlar expert in. (To find out more add +MikeDownes to your Google+ circle.)

Building an audience

Of course, for this approach to be effective, police forces must develop an online following.

I am aware of three main factors that have driven the high take up of members of the public following police on social media in the UK.

Devolving social media to grassroots level

The culture of the British police service (like most police forces across the world) is quasi-military, with a control and command structure and a strict hierarchy.

Despite this, most police services took the bold step of encouraging rank and file police officers to take to social media, reasoning that most members of the public were more likely to be interested in and relate to individual cops who worked locally and who were tweeting or posting about local crimes and issues.

Deputy Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie (@DCCTayside) who speaks for the police nationally on social media, helpfully coined the phrase:

“If I can trust my officers with a truncheon, I can trust them with Twitter”

This approach has borne fruit with over 1,000 British police officers running their own Twitter accounts.

Raising public awareness via Tweetathons

Greater Manchester were the first British force to try this approach, tweeting about every call they received over a 24 hour period. Vancouver and Zurich police have taken the same approach.

Sussex Police ran a recent Tweetathon dedicated to the issue of domestic violence.

They used the Tweetathon as a way of highlighting the issue, and encouraging victims to come forward and report crimes.

The Tweetathon was supported by two live web chats.

The number of domestic violence incidents reported over this 24 hour period was 66 compared to an average of 40 on a typical Friday.

The riots

The third factor that resulted in a large increase in the number of people following police social media accounts in the UK was the large scale rioting which took place over five days in August 2011.


Even though UK police forces only started to embrace social media three years ago, it already seems that the future of police-citizen communication will be conducted much more via Twitter, Facebook & YouTube than via television and press.



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