Social media and policing priority areas

In our previous articles we have generated a wide range of ideas whilst illuminating a host of social media practices in public security planning. In our next two articles we present the evidence received from LEAs about their needs and priorities, which aid our understanding of the future trajectory of the use of social media for public security.

To receive a broad range of views we constructed a panel of LEAs from across Europe. Using a method called a Delphi Survey, the opinions of this panel were collected, compared and replayed. In so doing we have been able to understand commonalities and difference in opinions. Here we focus on the main areas of practice where social media usage is becoming particularly useful that cut across a number of functions within law enforcement including investigation, intelligence, crime prevention, community engagement and communication:

  1. Coping with live events

Using social media to better respond to ongoing events has become a key security task. Our panel’s view indicated that through social media public security professionals will have improved analytical capabilities, will be better able to coordinate information flow between multiple public agencies and, more generally utilise a greater amount of data and information more effectively and quickly. For example, this will allow a swifter response to incidents as they begin to emerge giving LEA’s the ability to “provide immediate information, guidance and updates. This will also allow LEA’s to better deal with inaccuracies and rumours as they emerge during ongoing events – a situation that has previously caused significant issues in a number of well documented cases (London riots of 2011, Boston bombings of 2013, Munich shootings of 2016), notably in terms of distracting from the core task of bringing the ongoing event under control.

  1. Prediction, intelligence and preventative action

Social media will make the real-time mapping of perceptions of safety and experiences of anti-social behaviour more accurately realisable. This will enable those in charge of public security and city management to adapt their response much more precisely and allocate resources at the most useful times and in the most appropriate places.

Through advanced system monitoring and biometrics, social media has the potential to be increasingly be used in a predictive way and anticipate events before they happen. A greater amount of information on individuals and groups of activities can be processed in a shorter space of time. Algorithms which ‘hot spot’ where crime is most likely to take place innovative techniques in opinion and sentiment analysis could also allow resources to be deployed on early intervention and crime prevention tackling criminal activity before it takes place or escalates.

More broadly, combining different social media streams can provide investigators with much greater insight on suspects and criminal networks (social networks, how networks form and are sustained, spending patterns, locations visited, employment history, etc.) and can quickly build a very good profile of an individual or a group. The opinions of our panel suggest that social media has the potential provides real time intelligence and increasingly provides a means to monitor all key suspects.

  1. Community engagement

To date, connecting police with local citizens has been the core policing task that has mobilized social media. Our panel unanimously suggest that this will continue and will lead to the development and utilisation of new models of ‘community policing’ that increasingly use social media. In terms of community policing and the associated benefits to public security, social media has the potential for greatly enhancing public and police communication, aiding information sharing, education and transparency.

To this end individual officers will increasingly create and manage personalised social media accounts for every-day policing needs. This will allow the police to have more direct communication with citizens and provide them with information that can be increasingly ‘tailored’ to their needs. Over time it is likely that such ‘conversations’ between LEAs and citizens will involve two-way communications about how service delivery might be improved (and how services can be accessed through and on social media) rather than mono-directional communication where the police give out advice and guidance.

  1. Changes in policing environments

Whilst many of the changes predicted in police practice as a result of social media use are alluded to in the above sections there are two further issues to consider: over how social media can facilitate enhanced and beneficial dialogue between LEAs; and how issues surrounding ethics, privacy and data protection can be embedded within technical and organisational practices.

For example, how social media can facilitate communication (a secure and confidential exchange of information) between different branches of a country’s police forces or between EU forces. New styles of communication will further need to comply with privacy, data protection issues and other rights of citizen linked to general concerns over publicly discussing sensitive issues. Besides data protection concerns, a major obstacle to the use of social media is the principle of legality employed in many countries. For example, in Germany LEAs have to commit time and effort to prosecute all offences and this is overloading the police, especially in the area of hate speech or hate postings.

Overall, a generally positive view emerges of how social media would advance and, through technical and organisational changes, bring about more effective and efficient and generally ‘better’ policing and wider community engagement. It also highlighted the need to spend more time and resources on ‘softer’ issues of ethics and privacy to as to make social media-linked policing more socially acceptable as well as more effective.

Part 2 of this blog is available here. A copy of the report on which this blog is based is available from our publications page.

It is the objective of the MEDI@4SEC project to continue to explore these issues both in our ongoing Workshops but also through our Community conversation. We welcome all contributions to this conversation. If you would like to make your voice heard do so on Twitter (@media4sec, #media4sec) and by joining our LinkedIn group.


Jon Coaffee

MEDI@4SEC Project Co-ordinator
University of Warwick


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