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April 2019
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Joining the digital conversation – How police and public can join together to solve crime

There are growing indications that public sector organisations are getting up to speed with the digital revolution and making increasingly active use of social media networks to engage and collaborate with the public.

The recent appointment of Mike Bracken, previously at Guardian News and Media, as the Government’s director of Digital is a sign that the Government’s approach to social engagement, and, in particular, how it interacts with the public at large, is starting to change. Bracken’s vision for Government online should ensure that social media will play a key role in the future in improving the Government’s record in digital engagement.

Yet, so far it is in the Police where social media usage for public engagement has taken off most markedly. Many forces are already actively exploring using social media for everything from sharing safety-related information to appealing for information on specific crimes; improving community relations and interacting more effectively with the public.

Joining the Conversation

Of course, to be successful, efforts to reach out to local communities rely on public readiness to engage with these groups. Today there is evidence that this is starting to be the case, especially as far as the Police is concerned.

A recent survey of more than 2,000 British adults, carried out for SAS by online polling firm, YouGov, finds that people are most willing to share information when they expect it to lead to higher levels of security. The study found that nearly half (48%) of the British public would be prepared to share personal data with the police in return for enhanced personal security against criminal or terrorist attacks.

This willingness to share highlights that despite negative publicity about poor police relations with the public being a factor in the 2011 Summer riots, there remains a readiness among the public to engage with the police if it means better protection for themselves and their families.

The research also revealed an increasing willingness to report crimes via social media rather than by telephone or face-to-face, especially among the young. 15% of 18-24-year-olds said they would use a social media site to contact the police if they witnessed a crime (as opposed to only 1% of the 55-plus age range).

It is clear that younger people, in particular, appreciate the benefits of swapping privacy for enhanced security. To optimise the advantages that this approach potentially provides, the police increasingly need to keep on top of these trends and use social media to actively engage with the public.

There is an opportunity here for the police to tap into a rich source of public information – a source that is likely to be strengthened further if they are successful in building levels of trust with the public and stronger community links.

And the willingness to share extends beyond the purely online domain, as demonstrated by the Metropolitan Police’s new counter-terror campaign – “It’s probably nothing, but”, which urges people to report suspicious behaviour by calling a dedicated hotline. The campaign underlines the continuing threat to the British public from terrorism and criminal activity but it also highlights the benefits of close engagement between the police and public in countering this threat.

The public’s readiness to share personal information with the police and, increasingly in the future, other public sector groups, can stimulate a change in the conversation. The explosion in social media has seen a revolution in the way the world communicates. The time is now right for law enforcement agencies, and ultimately other public sector groups, to ensure that they catch up and actively work together with the public to deliver enhanced levels of personal and public security.

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