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FreePint BlogSocial media and the emergency services: Part 1 - Policing in your pocket

Thursday, 1st December 2011 Please login top-right to be able to star items

By Joanna Ptolomey and Christa M. Miller


Using social media to enable law enforcement agencies to engage with communities seems like a laudable objective, but what happens when those same media are used to crowdsource private information? Joanna Ptolomey and Christa Miller consider the implications of the social media initiatives being used by the police.


Introduction by Joanna Ptolomey, FUMSI Contributing Editor, Use

This world, with 24/7 news feeds and the touch paper that is social networking platforms, means that news, events and extreme situations are communicated quickly globally. That can be for the social good, such as with the Arab Spring uprisings against dictators, but it can bring fear too, such as during the recent escalating riots in the UK.

Is the world a more dangerous place? There are certainly some places in the world that I would not choose to live, but is it the fear of danger or crime that causes the worry? Personally I only have to watch the evening news, never mind what is trending on FaceBook and Twitter, and I double-check my house security.

Social media should be conversation facilitators and it is about time that we started to see the use of these platforms for law enforcement agencies, such as police services, to help alleviate the fear of crime in communities and engage their services at the hyper-local level. Surrey Police (UK) is one such example service with their recent launch of what they call a “policing in your pocket” smartphone mobile application. As part of this service local people will be able to engage directly with their local neighbourhood officers, find out what they working on, as well as voting on their local policing priorities.

Another UK initiative that has received much praise is MyPolice. This is essentially an online feedback tool that enables the police and the public to have a conversation. Lauren Currie, a recent FUMSI contributor, co-developed MyPolice and this is what she says about it:

“MyPolice does three things: firstly, it is a neutral space where people can find out more about who their police are, and what they do. Secondly, it allows people to send feedback about their experiences with the police, which we ensure gets delivered to the right force. Finally, MyPolice collects empathic data based on real customer experience and feeds it back to the police, which creates a deeper understanding of what the public needs, bringing the police and the public together.”

Both Surrey Police and MyPolice have used social media as tools for engagement, transparency and co-design in working with the public and being actively part of the community. However there are some concerns that the police are turning to social media to crowdsource private information and perhaps not come to correct conclusions, and indeed as a short term remedy for deeper social issues. Christa Miller provides some interesting thoughts on accessibility and privacy for police and investigative services.

Investigative crowdsourcing: With great power comes great responsibility

Christa M. Miller

“What goes online, stays online” has perhaps never been more true, as Facebook launches its new Timeline tool meaning that everything its members have ever done on the site will be available for viewing.

This is a boon to law enforcement, who correctly argue that social media users have no expectation of privacy when they do not take steps to protect their information or identities. From posting location information to allowing friends to tag them in photos to accepting any and all friend requests, the person who shares freely on social media is seen to be in a forum as public as a park or stadium.

But when the raw power of the tools and their functionality meet “the wisdom of the crowd”, police should reconsider their accessibility.

Citizens from London (England) and Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) this year came together to identify rioters and looters. They used Facebook image tagging, facial recognition software and their own outrage to make these identities available – all still within public view. Like any strong community policing effort, this made it easier for police to find and arrest wrongdoers.

However, just as citywide surveillance cameras are seen to be too intrusive – capturing the law-abiding together with the law-breaking – the convenient ability of average people to make identifications public (rather than through the domain of anonymous phone tips) threatens everyone's privacy. And the public's willingness to help can lead police and others to assume that everyone – even a free press – should be required to help, regardless of whether “help” has undergone judicial review.

Again, the notion of “privacy” is slippery. But the burden of proof in a criminal case means that police must go through a scientific process of ensuring their evidence is solid. Consider:

  • Eyewitness identifications are notoriously flawed, with many psychological as well as physical factors in play. No studies have been conducted that indicate whether IDs made in online mass group images, even where facial features are clear, are accurate.
  • “The wisdom of the crowd” itself has been called into question. Researchers have found that only a fraction of people provide opinions, making it easy for a few to sway the decisions of many. Police must ask, “which few?” and “what are their motivations?” to ensure – as they must with anonymous tips – that the information they use to arrest is not the result of mistaken identity, personal grudge or random sabotage “for the lulz”.

Identifying rioters may bring a short-term sense of satisfaction, but it is a reactive response, a distraction from the real work of solving causal, root problems. Police have a duty to take the lead: to help their community identify the problems, then to proceed under the rule of law. That may well include taking care to recruit, train and equip the right people to use social media for investigations.

It should also, because of social media's rapid changes, involve communication: in the name of transparency, showing citizens what is being done to protect both their persons and their privacy. In other words, police must become part of their community's network – and not try to make private citizens part of theirs.

View Part 2 »


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  • Item title: Social media and the emergency services: Part 1 - Policing in your pocket
  • Publication Date: Thursday, 1st December 2011
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Joanna is a freelance information consultant and analyst. She started her career in information as a clinical librarian in the NHS before moving to global consultancy group DTZ. Prior to working in the information sector Joanna was a project planning engineer in the construction industry for 10 years.

She hopes to help people use information for assessing risk, making decisions and in governance. She is particularly interested in inequalities issues such as accessibility, information literacy and the information divide especially in the healthcare sector. She is the author of a chapter 'Digital divide and accessibility' in Government Information Management in the 21st Century. She is also the author of the book Taking charge of your career: a guide for library and information professionals.

You can follow Joanna on Twitter.

More articles by Joanna Ptolomey »

Christa M. Miller is a public relations and communication strategist serving the law enforcement and digital forensics communities. Prior to that she worked as a freelance trade journalist specialising in issues related to high-tech crime, law enforcement technology and management issues including the balance between budget and well-trained, well-equipped officers. Her blog, Cops 2.0, was the first to cover social media use in law enforcement and she maintains a monthly column at She can be contacted at

More articles by Christa M. Miller »

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