As someone who’s been using social media for a while now, I’m always keen to promote it as a great channel of communication through which the police can keep in touch with the public.
I’ve written about why we use social media in the past and my views have only strengthened since then – it’s an incredibly valuable tool for us and we use it in a variety of different ways.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or maybe if you follow my Twitter feed, you’ll see how I try and use social media to break down the barriers between police and public, to educate, inform and entertain.
A couple of weeks ago I was involved in an incident which I think really highlights why social media is something that can’t be ignored when it comes to effective policing.
Officers on my shift had taken a report of an extremely high risk missing person. We had genuine reason to be concerned over her immediate safety and to make matters worse, had few leads as to where we might find her.
Alongside the actions that we’d take as due course – searches of open ground, use of dog units and the helicopter – we knew that publicity would play a crucial role in locating the person.
I’d been asked to help deliver leaflets to local pubs and shops but due to the time at which we began this exercise, after eleven at night, it was clear that we’d not reach many people this way. We’d not be able to issue a press release until the morning and short of knocking on doors, there weren’t many options for alerting the public.
This was where having in my pocket a device that could immediately send a message to 3,500 predominately local people was absolutely invaluable. Within minutes I was able to upload a photo of our missing person onto Twitter with her details and ask that should she be seen, we be contacted immediately.
Within an hour or so of putting the update onto Twitter, my appeal had been forwarded on by dozens of other followers across the social network. I worked out afterwards that the combined number of followers that it reached through being forwarded on was over 27,000. The photo itself was viewed more than 600 times.
In the same hour we distributed posters to a handful of petrol stations and the few pubs that were still open. I can’t imagine that more than a hundred people would have seen them all night.
In this example, the missing person was found safe and well the following day. Publicity had been further aided by appeals being made to the 30,000 followers of the official West Midlands Police Twitter account, our 10,000 Facebook subscribers and on the appeals section of the website which attracts several hundreds of thousands of views every month.
The scope for reaching thousands of people instantly, for responding to incidents in real time and not having to wait on traditional forms of communication to catch up with events shows how important social media can be to delivering an effective service.
In being able to serve the public – and crucially a vulnerable person – in such an effectual manner shows that when it comes to social media, the argument against our involvement is a very hard one to make.