LAST MONTH a Suffolk Police Sergeant was subject to disciplinary action when he tweeted a discourteous message about a former Chief Constable – despite not naming the senior officer in the tweet. In Northamptonshire four unnamed officers have had their Twitter accounts closed down, and an Acting Inspector in the West Midlands is being disciplined by his force over the content of his tweets.
In all cases, there is no suggestion that the officers posted racist, offensive, or criminal content – only that it was content with which senior officers disagreed. It seems the police are obliged to uphold the public’s right to freedom of speech, yet are swiftly handcuffed when they dare to proffer an opinion of their own.
Forces who tweet well – and there are a few – have realised that dry, über-professional twitter streams aren’t doing them any favours. “Are these your pot plants?” Surrey Police ask, in a tweet accompanying a photo of seized cannabis plants. “Call 101 to claim them,” and they are immediately swamped with RTs and LOLs. Their tweets maintain the perfect balance between entertainment and usefulness, resulting in a Twitter reach which pays dividends when they have urgent information to impart about burglary trends or missing children.
So if forces can make jokes, why not individual officers? Officials cracking down on police tweeters daring to show some personality are missing the whole point of Twitter. We don’t follow @veryfunnycop because of his enthralling updates on how many Fixed Penalty Notices he’s handed out; we follow him because he confesses to losing his locker key, avoiding the canteen sandwiches and never being able to find a pen. (At least, we would if he were real). He builds a following by amusing and intriguing us, and then when he needs us – to circulate details of a stolen car – he’s got us in the palm of his hand. Literally.
A report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary recently found 357 instances of ‘potentially inappropriate behaviour’ on social media sites, mainly Twitter. Ignoring the fact that 357 actually seems refreshingly low, given the numbers of police officers and staff in the UK, the report then goes on to break these down into categories. Granted, the 132 instances of offensive language should probably have been kept offline, but the remainder of these supposedly heinous crimes relate to comments on police procedure (119), negativity towards work (70) and extreme opinions on the Government (36). So don’t tweet that you’ve had a bad day, or that the uniform you have to wear is heavy and impractical. Don’t dare mention the bureaucratic paperwork, or say that you can’t wait to get home. Big Brother is not only watching you, he’s monitoring your social media networks and waiting to hit you over the head with a side-handled baton.
Sure, people say some stupid things, and sometimes those things are not only stupid but offensive and even criminal. And in those cases the new guidance issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers is probably necessary (particularly the bit about not tweeting when drunk – good advice for us all, I feel). But come down too hard on these committed, passionate, funny police tweeters, and they will leave Twitter altogether, removing access to their modern-day Neighbourhood Watch audiences in one fell swoop. And when that child goes missing, or there’s an e-fit to circulate for a serial sex-offender, there’ll be no-one listening.
Clare Mackintosh is a freelance feature-writer, columnist and crime novelist, and a former Police Inspector. Follow her on Twitter @claremackint0sh or read her blog at www.claremackintosh.com/blog