Archive for August, 2011

Autumn is come to my hometown…

As seen from the Chester Road, the Autumn sun rising on Tuesday morning. Photo taken by Brownhills Bob, please click above to see his excellent Brownhills Blog.

First of all, with us still hanging on to the last few hours of August I’m a little uncomfortable with heralding the coming of Autumn however it seems I’m one of the few who are of this opinion and so here we are, a quick blog looking back over the past few months and ahead to the future.

When I mention the ‘past few months’, I’m thinking of little else than the disorder we saw in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and West Bromwich. Sure, I could mention the occasional sunny day that represented the slim efforts of this year’s Summer but they were completely overshadowed by the events of those few days in August.

Nobody could have seen it coming and we as a force, along with forces up and down the country, had to rapidly adapt to the situation and take the steps necessary to quell the disorder and restore peace to the streets. Public support was crucial to our success and meant the world to the officers who were out in the riot vans, in the operation centres and performing a thousand other less visible but still crucial roles.

We’re currently in the process of reviewing our response to the disorders and are working our way towards compiling a report that will be presented to the Chief Constable highlighting both developmental issues and the many examples of good practice that came to light.

We’ve been particularly keen to look at the role played by social media – something new to the force in the context of such a major operation – and work out how we could better engage with the public through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc.

The coming months will see the nights drawing in, temperatures dropping and the force facing a range of demands, some of which we know about and some we don’t. As Donald Rumsfeld would say, “Things we don’t know we don’t know”.

Some of the ‘known knowns’ include the major operation to police the coming Liberal Democrat Conference, keeping up the pressure on robberies through Serve & Protect and concentrating on the rise in burglaries that longer nights can sometimes foster.

Remembering back to the complications caused by last year’s severe Winter, we’ll be better prepared to maintain our service if the snow sets in again with resources managed more effectively and officers remembering their wooly hats and mittens.

As for the unknowns, the hardest part of policing has always been working out how to prepare for the major incident – the plane crash, murder, or disorder – of which we have no prior warning and that we only become aware of when a panicked 999 call is received by our control room. As we always have done and always will do, we’re constantly reflecting on our service and on the opportunities available to make improvements.

The last month has been interesting to say the least, the coming months will be exciting and no doubt challenging too. As one season slides away and another takes its place we’ll continue to do what we all joined to do – serving our communities and protecting them from harm.

I’ve just seen a face…

It's not a 'fan' page...

This is a lightening quick post to publicise my joining of a website I discovered the other day called the ‘Facebook’.

It appears to be fairly new and I’ve no idea if it’ll catch on or if they might one day make an Oscar-nominated film about it being set up but as someone who likes to be on the cutting edge of technology, I thought I’d get on board before it gets too big and I’m accused of jumping on the bandwagon.

Seriously though, I’ve set up a Facebook Page which I’m aiming to use primarily as an extension of my Twitter feed. By ‘extension’ I mean that the page has been set so that my updates are automatically republished and so hopefully will be able to reach those members of the public who are familiar with the Facebook but not Twitter.

At time of writing the UK has around thirty million users of the Facebook in comparison to around seven million Twitter subscribers hence the numbers speak for themselves.

By joining the Facebook I’ll be in good company as Walsall Police and West Midlands Police already have their own pages which have proven to be very popular.

Whilst as far as I’m aware I’ll be the first individual officer to start a page, I do want to stress that it hasn’t been set up as a ‘fan’ site. I am working on a proper fan club with bi-annual newsletter, badges, ID card and maybe, if I can book an exhibition hall at the NEC, a convention in the near future. Stay tuned!

Did you ever know that you’re my hero?

"You're saying the FBIs gonna pay me to learn how to surf"?

Police movies. The whole ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine. Chasing folk over rooftops, driving down narrow side streets through stacks of boxes and diving in slow motion away from huge explosions. Getting yelled at by the lieutenant, throwing our badge across the desk but then saving the day and getting the girl in the process.

Just how realistic is this? How much are we influenced by some of Hollywood’s best portrayals of our profession? In this, less than serious, post, I look at my own top five cop movies and consider how they relate to my role, starting off with -

5) Police Academy (1984) – The Police Academy films, well, most of them, excited me because they gave me the impression that once I got to police academy myself, I’d have as much fun as they did in the picture. People from all sorts of different backgrounds would gather on day one and slowly but surely be molded into reasonably competent officers. I’d meet a variety of different characters – the one who loves guns, the one who does the voices, the quiet one who can be really loud – and we’d all bond during our journey from civilians to cops. This sort of happened too – we didn’t drive too many police cars through walls or get sent to Russia but what did happen was that we did bond, we developed and worked together to graduate.

4) The Wicker Man (1973) – Genuinely one of my favourite films, this is all about a Scottish officer who takes on the mother of all missing persons enquiries which ends up going pretty much as badly as any job could – he is sacrificed by a group of skirt wearing, makeup-clad pagan islanders inside a giant wicker man. This is the nightmare scenario for any job and something that in reality happens to very few officers. Before ending up as toast though, the officer makes some incredibly tenacious enquiries to find his lost girl demonstrating many of the skills that make a good police officer.

3) Die Hard (1988) – John McClane is the reason that I, like many other officers, wear a white sleeveless vest under my uniform. If worst comes to worst I can strip down to this key bit of police kit and blow up a skyscraper or two to prevent evil terrorists bothering the good people of Walsall. If nothing else, McClane teaches us the importance of always having a smart quip ready to dish out to the bad guys. A catchphrase doesn’t hurt either – yippee-ki-yay!

2) Tango & Cash (1989) – At the start of a shift when we’re assigned partners, the first thing we always do is to decide who is going to be the good cop and who is going to be the bad cop. This is relatively easy as my unit is split down the middle between good, by-the-book cops who have only got one day until retirement and then the renegade trouble causers who don’t always follow the rules but get the job done in their own way. Tango & Cash demonstrates the importance of both working together when we’ve been sent to jail for a crime we did not commit and also driving the biggest, meanest assault vehicle we can lay our hands on to demolish the drug dealer’s lair.

1) Point Break (1991) – The ultimate dream of every new recruit to the police is to one day infiltrate a group of bank robbers-cum-surfers and learn to catch the perfect wave at the same time. To defeat the gang, Point Break’s protagonist, Johnny Utah, must not only gain an understanding of his foe but also avoid doing anything that comes anything close to acting. Like officers do up and down the country, he puts his life at risk on a daily basis because he wants to prevent crime. And surf. And at the end of the day, is there a truer expression of the Peelian Principles than that? No.

I heard it through the grapevine…

The image of the station I uploaded to help quell internet rumours that it'd burnt down.

For myself, I’d say that by far Tuesday August 9th was the busiest day of the ‘Birmingham Riots’. Funnily enough this wasn’t because there were any riots, not in Walsall anyway, but because in the wake of the disorder seen in the city centre the night before, the social media networks were alive with rumour and speculation about where the trouble would next spread.

Before I tell you about my experience over that thirteen hour shift, I think it’d be useful to give a little background to why I became involved in social media in the first place.

Two important things came together to result in me starting on behalf of the police firstly a Twitter account and later a blog. These were the fact that I’m a geek and also the fact that being a geek and having some knowledge of how social media works, I could see the obvious benefits of using it as a police officer to communicate directly with the public.

I’ve written before about why we tweet and why I think social media has such an important part to play in modern day policing. The positive results can be seen daily across the force with officers able to give short, interesting updates to keep those they police updated.

With the riots starting in Tottenham and then spreading north the value and importance of maintaining a police presence on sites such as Twitter was quickly brought into sharp focus with accounts such as my own attracting thousands of additional followers, all people keen for reliable, real time updates on what was happening.

Last Tuesday saw me spending most of the shift sitting in the passenger seat of a patrol car with my phone in my lap. @replies were flooding in on Twitter from people around Walsall and further afield and I was both able to monitor the rumours and also gauge and then respond to people’s concerns.

As one of the first events of a scale capable of touching everyone in the country to have unfolded since of the establishment of social media, it was fascinating to see how quickly rumours caught hold and how willingly people would accept them.

That I was able to respond the quell such rumours there and then I think was incredibly valuable in that I believe, or at least hope, that an update from a policeman on the scene would have far more weight attached to it than would a groundless ‘I’ve heard…’ update, and so help reassure people accordingly.

One of the best rumours of the day was that my police station was on fire. Despite assurances that it wasn’t, I eventually had to publish a photo of the station very much not on fire to convince the rather worried population of Twitter. This photo was then forwarded on over a hundred times by my followers.

Since the disorder has died down, there has been debate about the role played by social media in the riots and indeed whether it was to blame. Some have even called for social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook to be shut down during times of turmoil.

My thoughts on this are that for any message that encouraged people to meet up in Birmingham or Wolverhampton, as examples, the networks were clogged with hundreds of other false and fruitless ‘It’s going to kick off at…’ tweets meaning the rumour mill itself impacted of social media’s apparent ability to focus people at a certain time and place as the ‘plans’ became so diluted and disorganised.

Furthermore I’m quite skeptical that it’d be either technically possible or indeed ethical to deny access to networks which the majority of the public use for peaceful ends. Think of the uproar that occurs when Facebook goes offline for even a few hours – people depend on it to keep in touch with their friends and family and I think proposing to shut down the service shows that this aspect of social media is not being properly considered.

There’d also be the obvious problem that with one service removed, another pops up offering the same capability and so where would media controls end? Closing down message boards? Stopping text messages? Blocking the millions of chat rooms? The era of mass communication is not something that can be switched off.

Riots are things that have been happening way before the advent of social media – no one Tweeted about the violent Poll Tax demonstrations – and I believe that periods of disorder are when the police and other emergency services most need an ability to directly interact with the public.

It’s in the immediate aftermath of a major incident – a fire or serious crash for example – that my Twitter account attracts the greatest amount of attention and this is because people value a direct response from those ‘in the know’.

This is not to say that some of the rioters didn’t get the idea to join in the ‘fun’ having received the call on BBM, I’m sure they did, but the merits of social networking still far, far outweigh the disadvantages at the time of a crisis.

Yes, misinformation can spread and spread fast but so can reliable, reassuring updates and at a time of unrest, this is what people need most of all.

It’s all over now, Baby Blue…

My 'Dedication' pic - 39,000 something views, over 2000 retweets, picked up by Sky News, ITV, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Express & Star to name a few...

Whilst I’m writing this, many officers across the West Midlands and further afield are slowly returning to normality after the tumultuous days of the previous week.

As the pic above shows, the shifts we’ve worked have been long, they’ve been tiring and demanding but at the same time have been necessary. Our job is to serve the public and when such an extraordinary set of circumstances arises, we are compelled to do all we can to return a sense of order to the streets.

When I talk about ‘normality’ of course, I guess it’s important to recognise that when it comes to the job of a police officer, there’s really no such thing.

‘Normality’ for officers in Walsall yesterday meant dealing with a major factory fire in the centre of the town. Normality meant the helicopter hovering overhead as units rushed around sealing off roads, evacuating houses and us looking like fluorescent windmills as we directed traffic around the scene of the incident.

I’d said earlier in the week how important the support of the public has been in helping officers through the longer shifts and giving us that extra boost when we reached four in the morning having worked however many hours and upon trying to write a statement, felt so tired that the words on the paper appeared to jump out of order and dance around the room.

The level of support that we’ve received, particularly through the social media sites, has in my experience been quite unprecedented and through my Twitter account alone I’ve read hundreds upon hundreds of messages wishing us well and congratulating us for our work.

I’ve been making sure that these messages find their way to the officers who are not quite as technically minded as myself and am really struggling to put into writing how much they’ve meant to us or what a difference it makes to know that whilst a small band of hoodlums have been out causing trouble, the vast majority of the public have been as shocked as we were at the scale of the disorder.

From talking to people whilst we’ve been out on foot patrols it is clear that this support is evenly distributed and there have been some superb acts of kindness shown by the public, locally with biscuits being dropped in at Willenhall Police Station and some rather delicious cakes finding their way to the nick at Walsall.

Of course from one point of view, the title of this blog is a little misleading (sorry Bob) as yes, whilst police officers are slowly resuming their normal duties, a wider discussion is now taking place on the cause of the riots and how to prevent their re-occurrence. We’re looking at ‘Broken Britain’, enhanced policing powers and importing super cops. Whilst the disorders have subsided, they were symptoms of a wider disease and it is the disease itself that needs a cure.

In addition to this discussion, efforts to identify and prosecute those sophisticated criminals who took part in the looting are ongoing with Operation View in the West Midlands now well established and yielding successes on a daily basis.

Eight days ago I don’t imagine anyone could have predicted how the rest of the week would have panned out. This is the nature of policing though, the unpredictability is something we’re used to but this isn’t to say that makes it any easier to deal with. What has helped though is your support, support that’ll not be readily forgotten.

I’ve changed my plea to guilty because freedom is wasted on me…

A custody van delivers yet more rioters to court (Image from BBC)

Another day and another quick blog post to keep you updated about the steps we’re taking to keep safe the communities of the West Midlands and help with the process of putting the pieces back together again in the wake of the recent disorders.

Assuming you’re hooked up to my Twitter feed (or indeed any of the other WMP social media outlets), you’ll know that our shifts have been subject to a little ‘rejiggling’ to ensure that there are many, many officers on duty at peak times.

We are all working a little longer than we would do usually but at the same time the general feeling is that we’re all pulling together to help each other out and serve you in the process.

Last night’s shift, between 7PM and 7AM, saw officers on duty across the West Midlands either out in patrol cars, sitting in police vans or out on their feet in the town centres. I spent the shift with a partner driving around in one of the ‘response’ cars attending the call outs and jobs that we continue to receive irregardless of the riots.

Saying that I spent the night going to jobs though, I should probably clarify by saying that after midnight or so the calls had dropped off and reassuringly there was very little to do other than go on the prowl for burglars and spot foxes. I spoke to officers who were finishing having been out in the ‘public order’ vans and they reported a similar shift – lots of patrol and chatting to people but no issues at all.

I’ve been regularly checking the prisoners we have held in the cells at Walsall and Bloxwich Police Stations and have been inspired when I load up the ‘white board’ to see we’ve been filling our blocks with people arrested for burglary, theft, criminal damage, public order offences and all sorts else in connection with the disorders.

As you may have read, the courts are opening throughout the night in order to process the huge numbers of prisoners that we have – and are continuing to – arrest having been identified as responsible for looting, some being arrested, charged and jailed inside twenty four hours.

To this end the CID department have been working especially hard in collecting evidence, interviewing and securing charges for these prisoners and so I think deserve a great deal of recognition for the results they’re achieving.

Meanwhile we continue to be bolstered by the huge amount of positive feedback that we’re receiving through the social networks and as I’ve said before, will say now and will say again in the future, it really does mean a lot to us.

My ‘Dedication’ photo continues to act as an apparent conduit for public goodwill towards us emergency services having quite expectantly found its way into many of the national papers and even onto the TV.

The amount of people who have shared it with others as a mark of their support for our work has been outstanding and whilst it does indeed reflect the resident fatigue of our longer hours, it at the same time reinforces our resolve to work the shifts, your support demonstrating that at times like these, the police really are the public and the public the police.

There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt…

The above is another shortish (well, seven minute long) video from our head honcho, West Midlands Police Chief Constable Chris Sims. I think the key quote to have come from our Chief over the past couple of days has been that those involved in the riots have been ‘not an angry crowd, but a greedy crowd’.

This pretty much says it all – there’s no political reason for burning down somebody’s home, smashing up somebody’s livelihood or robbing an injured person in broad daylight.

For many reasons it has been – and continues to be – an absolutely fascinating time to be a bobby and yesterday’s shift was no exception. I’d spent twelve hours on foot, walking around the centre of Walsall and chatting to anyone and everyone who fancied a chin wag.

There were no problems at all and as photos I uploaded showed, if anything it was actually quieter than usual. I understand this was the case across the rest of the West Midlands too.

Not having to chase masked hoodlums around whilst blowing my police whistle and yelling “Stop in the name of the law!”, I had the time to engage with people both face to face and through the social media, particularly my Twitter feed.

In both respects the support shown by the general public has been absolutely incredible and will be the subject of its own blog as and when I get the chance to sit and write something that sums up how much it meant to us all – not something that I feel will be easy to do.

I’d spent a lot of the afternoon popping into shops to speak to staff and also talking to shoppers making their way around the town. Positive feedback for what we were doing was unanimous and nothing short of inspiring. ‘There’s been no trouble in Walsall and that’s because the police have acted so quickly, thank you’.

This message was repeated over and over and means a great deal to us, it really does.

To top it all off, I received an invite through Twitter to drop into the Mayor’s Parlour at the town hall and on doing so, was not only thanked by the Mayor but also by the over fifties group visiting him at the time who all applauded us.

For the social media side, I’ve not been able to keep up with the hundreds and hundreds of messages of support that I’ve been sent through Twitter to pass on to colleagues. You can see the sort of response I’ve got here and I’ve been passing the messages on to my colleagues.

You’d think we’d struggle to work the extended shifts we’re now working but to be honest, such a level of positive feedback makes coping with the situation so much easier.

Just before I finished in the early hours I’d taken a photo in the canteen of some of the officers who were taking a break having manned one of the riot vans for however many hours previously. I’d accompanied the photo with the title ‘Dedication. Can’t say more than that’ as genuinely there was nothing more I could add.

The support we’ve had from the public I think is summed up in the response that this photo has had. I asked that it be forwarded, thinking that being the early hours a handful of people might see it. At time of writing, twenty five thousand people have viewed it.

Dedication. It goes both ways.

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