Bobbies on the tweet: How the police use social media to engage with the community

We're fascinated by the ways in which police forces using social media nowadays to engage with the community. How does it help with crime prevention? Which topics generate the most response from the public? And what happens when you make a typo in a tweet? 

PC David Cairns-Johnstone from Cambridgeshire Constabulary kindly took time during the night shift to tell us more.

First things first, who looks after the Twitter account – is it just one of you or do you share responsibility?
In Cambridgeshire Constabulary we have a number of Twitter accounts. The main force account is @cambscops. We also have a number of district/divisional Twitter accounts such as @cambridgecops or @EastCambsCops. I have access to, and input on, the @cambridgecops account which covers the Cambridge City area.

All the Twitter accounts are the overall responsibility of our Corporate Communications Department. The @cambscops account is the primary Twitter account of Cambridgeshire Constabulary and is managed at a forcewide level.

Our force control room has access to the main account, as well as the district accounts, to update the feeds during live incidents outside of office hours when practicable– for example major road closures following a road collision.

I share responsibility for the @cambridgecops account with Corporate Communications, the Community Safety Officer for Cambridge City as well as the Problem Solving Sergeant for the Cambridge City Centre Neighbourhood Team. I sign my tweets off with the signature – ^PC513 – to add a ‘personal touch’ to the account and make it easier for follow up enquiries about incidents I tweet about.

When did you first get on social media? 
I took to Twitter to communicate with the public in a professional capacity about three years ago when I first worked for Greater Manchester Police. I have been tweeting for Cambridgeshire Constabulary via @cambridgecops since February 2015.

What led to the decision to start using Twitter and other channels to communicate with the public?
I decided to start using social media to increase awareness of what we, as frontline officers, deal with in the City and to provide another means of interaction between the police and the public. The majority of the public have, and never will, have any direct contact with the police. Their views and opinions on the police and what we do are likely to be formed from what they see on TV, in the media or from what they see police officers do in the street as they pass by.

I tweet to try to give the public an insight into some of what we do and to increase engagement with the public. These images for example are from one of our more popular tweets, when a Lamborghini was seized for having no insurance. It received over 12,000 views on Twitter.

Was there any opposition to the decision to start using social media (internally or externally?)
I haven’t faced any opposition internally and was encouraged and supported by supervision and colleagues to increase the use and output of the @cambridgecops account. Members of my shift are very supportive with my use of Twitter as it helps to show what front line police officers actually deal with and respond to in Cambridge. 

External opposition has been minimal – overall feedback is very supportive and the public seem to like hearing about what we do in the city and the incidents we deal with. The Twitter feed has also provided a lot of information for local media outlets to report on crime and policing activities in Cambridge.  

When I have tweeted during a shift I have had a couple tweets back from the public stating I should be out catching criminals rather than being on Twitter - which is to be expected.

Unfortunately, I very rarely have time to tweet during a shift so the majority of my tweets and activity on Twitter actually come after my shift has finished or on rest days when I am ‘off the clock’. On occasions I try to use down time during a shift to update Twitter – for example on a food break or if I am waiting for a car to be recovered.

Tell us a bit more about your approach to the different channels you use – how often do you update, what sort of content do you post? What are your objectives?
I only have access to and use Twitter. The force does have Facebook accounts as well as an eCops Service, however, I don’t have access to these outlets yet.

I try to approach my social media engagements informally whilst still maintaining the professionalism that the public expect. Where I can, and when it is appropriate, I will try to add a little bit of humour into lighthearted events but am always mindful of how this can be interpreted.

I don’t have any formal objectives, however, I do aim to inform the public about incidents that we deal with, pass crime prevention advice to reduce victims and to encourage engagement between the public and the Constabulary.

What are the risks of social media that you need to be aware of?
As a constabulary our main area of business is investigating crime and protecting and safeguarding the public. We are governed by the Human Rights Act and Data Protection Legislation. As such when I tweet about incidents I have to be mindful about potentially breaching an individual’s right to privacy or increasing a victim’s or witness’s vulnerability. I also have to ensure I do not give away any information that could jeopardise a person’s right to a fair trial at court at a later date.

A common example of this can be seen in photos I have tweeted from the scene of an incident - I will always blur out the face of any members of the public caught in the image. I will also keep details that could possibly identify a suspect or victim well away from any tweets.

My tweets are generally ‘vague’ in terms of the incident location and who it involves. If there are any follow-up enquiries about my tweets from the public or the press I will pass on the relevant details to the Corporate Communications Office who manage what information is released.

I personally do not tweet about any incidents that I attend involving serious crime, sexual offences or incidents involving child abuse due to the serious and sensitive nature of them.  

Tell us a bit more about the response you’ve had from the public. Are your posts usually met with positive comments or are people more combative? Does it differ on different platforms?
The overall majority of engagements from the public via Twitter have been very positive and since I have started using the @cambridgecops Twitter account the number of followers has continued to increase.

Certain topics generate a lot of engagement which is both positive and ‘negative’ depending on the person's outlook on the matter – these topics are often when a tweet is sent out about a motorist or a cyclist being issued with a ticket.

Have you ever posted anything you’ve regretted?
I haven’t posted anything that I have regretted (yet); however, I did post a tweet with a spelling mistake about a ‘rouge’ swan rather than a ‘rogue’ swan as a result of large thumbs, a touch screen and autocorrect.

The spelling mistake was quickly highlighted by a number of my followers and duly amended with an apology and forgiveness from those who highlighted the mistake.   

What have been the positive results of using social media?
A big positive, personally, has been increasing the number of followers by over 800 since I began to tweet on the @cambridgecops account. This has broadened the number of people who can potentially read tweets about crime prevention and public appeals ideally helping to reduce the number of victims and increase reporting of criminal or suspicious activity by the public.

How has it helped you maintain a relationship with the community? 
Although the @cambridgecops account is not monitored 24/7, an extra user helps to monitor tweets that are sent to the @cambridgecops account on a regular basis. This allows queries and interactions from the public to be dealt with appropriately and in a more timely fashion and helping to maintain a relationship with the community via the Twitter account.

A relationship that has been developed since I began to use the @cambridgecops account is that between our colleagues in the British Transport Police at Cambridge Train Station, @BTPCambs.

The city of Cambridge attracts a high number of commuters for both work and pleasure, often with the rail network. By complementing both Twitter feeds we can target a larger audience to advise and inform the public of ongoing incidents and crime prevention advice.

I also maintain regular contact with the officer behind the @BTPCambs account discussing new ideas and thoughts behind our respective accounts.

What tips would you give other police forces or public bodies when using social media?
The biggest thing I would say to other police forces or public bodies about using social media is not to be afraid of it. Social media is a big part of society now and seems to be getting bigger.

Social media has a massive potential to reach out to a larger proportion of the community and engage with other partner agencies to sign post their services. This is very important in the current financial climate where we aim to increase efficiency in the constabulary.

I would also say that whilst social media is a useful tool it still has to be treated with respect and caution and before any tweet is sent out it should be carefully considered to ensure it is appropriate for the public domain and will not infringe a person’s human rights or a criminal investigation.

Many thanks to PC David Cairns-Johnstone for talking to us about the @cambscops approach to social media. We love hearing more about the tools and techniques organisations use to engage with their different audiences. So if you would like us to cover you on the Sookio blog - or if you think you would benefit from our expertise with a bespoke digital content strategy - please get in touch.