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Ruth Davis: How the police can use social technology and new media to cut crime

Ruth Davis is a Crime and Research Fellow with Policy Exchange

Screen shot 2013-07-19 at 18.26.16You are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police if you are black or from an ethnic minority background than if you are white. If you are stopped, there is only a 9 per cent chance that you are doing or planning to do anything that should result in your arrest. The Home Secretary recently told Parliament that this suggests that the police are using stop and search powers without reasonable grounds for doing so and in a way that discriminates against people because of their ethnicity rather than for behaving suspiciously.

It is, she says, ‘not sustainable’ if public confidence in the police is to be maintained. She is right.

This is the latest in a series of recent events and claims. Hillsborough, Operation Elveden, undercover intrigue against the Lawrence family: all are by-words for the corrupt and closed culture that has operated in some parts of our police service and all have damaged public confidence in the police.

Happily, however, this is only one side of the story. Many police forces are opening up their world to the public, improving co-operation, trust and communication through the use of social media and new technologies. Hailed as a means to cut costs and improve efficiency, the power of technology to collapse barriers and strengthen relations has often been overlooked. Used well however, it has the potential to take Peel’s principle that the police are the public and the public are the police into the digital age.

The police are the public

The public need to be confident that the police are on their side, accountable for the way they use their powers and for how they deal with victims of crime.

81 per cent of police forces are already using social media to interact with the public, helping to build understanding of the work they do and the situations they face. This should be encouraged and expanded to actively involve communities. Greater Manchester Police, for example, have a scheme called Citizen Reporter, where citizens accompany officers on the beat reporting on their experience.

Technology can record events, building confidence that the police will be proportionate in their use of such powers as stop and search, and put a stop to rare but serious cases of alleged abuse. Collecting live evidence with body cameras is being trialled by Hampshire, Thames Valley and Plymouth police. They report an increase in public confidence and a decrease in malicious complaints.

Being open about the progress of investigations with victims of crime is key to combating perceptions that the police ‘won’t bother’ to try and solve minor crimes. Avon and Somerset police are trialling the use of the ‘Track my Crime’ website which officers use to update people on how their investigation is progressing. Such an approach resolves tensions such as not being able to get hold of officers working night shifts or out making inquiries.

The public are the police

The public have always been ready to help the police prevent crime and stop criminals, but now the use of new technologies to report crime and identify suspects has taken this to a level not previously possible.

Such incidents as the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich and the 2011 London riots saw the Metropolitan Police inundated with information. To maximise this input, forces need to build the capability to sift useful intelligence and potential eye witnesses from the torrent of comment and queries in which they are wrapped up. More needs to be done to integrate public social media feeds into proactive intelligence gathering and the monitoring of police operations. The Met built this capability in the wake of the London riots, partnering with HP to analyse the content of tweets, blog posts and articles to glean information on trending issues and community influencers.

Crime mapping, social media, and GPS can be used by Neigbourhood Policing Teams, improving the way they work with local businesses and communities to identify hotspots of criminal behaviour and target police patrols. In this way, the public can be confident that the police have a strong local presence where it’s most needed: this will be key to maintaining visibility at a time when police numbers are declining. Public input will also build intelligence on criminal behaviour which has previously gone unrecognised, an approach that could have highlighted the extent of localised grooming in towns such as Oxford, where police and social workers failed to connect disparate intelligence for far too long.

Technology can help the police do more with less, but it can also go further than that. If embraced and used effectively, it can do much to bridge the distance that has built up between the police and the communities they serve, increasing the accountability of the police to the public and giving the public the opportunity to help keep their communities safe.


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