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Andrew Spencer

Social Media Has Enabled Crowd Policing

How the police use social and other new media ...

Posted on: 11/10/2013   By: Andrew Spencer

Crowd policing normally means how police control crowds, deal with riots, protests etc. But it can also mean using the wider community to aid the police in finding people, suspects and so on. Just as there is crowd funding and crowd sourcing there is crowd policing ...

Police forces use social and new media to try and stop demonstrations turning into riots as well as identify those that incite violence (image courtesy

Police forces use social and new media to try and stop demonstrations turning into riots as well as identify those that incite violence (image courtesy

But they also use it for crowd control! The police not only use Social Media for crowd policing but for quite a number of purposes. More about that later.

This post was prompted by a piece in the Sunday Times on the 29th September 2013 about the police using Twitter to find Esme Smith, a 14 year that had gone missing. The police had used conventional means to find her, in particular CCTV, and had traced her to London. From Waterloo Station she went to the Strand and was filmed in McDonald’s then seen walking towards Covent Garden. That's where the trail went cold.

Surrey Police could not get radio or newspapers to carry appeals because this was not the first time Esme had gone missing, so they used new media instead. They tweeted to nearly 30,000 followers and that was retweeted more than 1,000 times within a few hours.

The details were put on a page on their website which was visited 120,000 times (average of 3 mins each, which is a long time for any page). They loaded details onto their Facebook page which was "liked" 4,000 times and the page was "shared" by 12,000 people.

The police appealing for her to return filmed Esme’s older sister. The video was posted on YouTube where it was viewed more than 11,000 times. The story continued to spread until 11 days after she disappeared, someone spotted her on the street and flagged down a passing police car.

A great range of new media tools was used here and effectively engaged large numbers of people who otherwise would not have participated in the search. The police recognised that the use of these media tools is what lead to finding Esme – a big eye opener for them apparently!

There are lots of examples of this type of crowd policing but what else do they use Facebook and Twitter for? In Sheffield, Twitter is used for crowd control, whether the crowd is hostile or benign.

One example of this is at a LibDem conference in March 2011 where there was a big protest. To quote Inspector Jayne Forrest of South Yorkshire Police in

"It was three months hard work before the conference where I worked with the protestors. A lot of the planning of the protest was done on social media, Facebook and Twitter. I was able to build my profile and engage with people through a means that previously we would never have thought of using.

The use of social media and, in particular, mobile social media was important during the protest itself:

"We can all go on websites and identify people and contact them. What I was able to do was in live time. Somebody posted a picture of a flare on Twitter and put 'We are raging'. I was able to immediately respond and say 'Please don't light flares, they are dangerous and you could get arrested.' You could almost feel the temperature of the crowd coming down. Other people would then tweet 'Don’t be lighting flares, it is not on, I have got children here'. So we went from 'We are raging' to 'Oops sorry!'"

And all in real time!

In Spain, police are using tweets in a very novel way. They are serious about crime tips using Twitter but use enough humour in their tweets to have gained 500,000 followers - more than any other law enforcement agency apart from the FBI. Two examples:

"Ah, a few beers on a terrace laughing with your girlfriends, watching the hot boys go past ;) Don’t take your eye off your handbag and your phone!"

"Turn on the passion ... SWITCH OFF the camera. NO TO SEXTING!"

Facebook is very much used to gather evidence in the United States by colleges and universities to investigate underage drinking and violations of dry campus policies. See Wikipedia – Use of social networks in investigations for more details.

The same techniques are used by many police forces to catch criminals, many of whom are remarkably stupid in how they use Facebook. They often give major clues to their activities, their whereabouts etc.

But there are things police should not be doing! Here are 2 inherent dangers of overactive use of social media. The first is premature release of information, potentially compromising due process in court cases and severely compromising the privacy of the accused.

In Hopatong, USA in late June this year a 19 year old man was arrested and charged with sexual assault of a girl under 16. A week later the police released the details on Facebook including the identity of the accused and an online debate began. This is a small town and many knew both the accused and the victim. The police response to the debate was:

"Society wants to know what is going on in their town and that is what we are doing. Don’t break the law and you won’t be on here."

What happened to the notion you are innocent till proven guilty? This is kangaroo court time.

The second is the danger of overstepping the mark and entrapping people into crimes. There is always the potential for police to overstep the mark in undercover and sting operations. Entrapment is very hard to prove as you have to prove the police caused you to commit a crime you otherwise would not have done. As most seem intent to commit the crime anyway this is difficult.

In the context of social media it is not unusual or wrong for the police to make friend requests to criminals and many are accepted. This enables the police to monitor that criminal’s social announcements. But if the police then initiate a conversation, for example "would you want to buy some cannabis?" this could easily be construed as entrapment as the police initiated a conversation apropos of nothing the suspect knew about.

I suppose the worst aspect of police or other law enforcement - including the military in some countries - using social media is the suppression of dissent and protest. Using social media to identify and arrest/harass individuals that are exercising the right to free speech. This happens and should not be supported.

As a footnote to crowd policing, the growing use of in-car cameras is not only helping to protect the driver from crash whiplash or insurance scams but is also catching dangerous driving or motoring lawbreakers. I have seen a number of incidents recently where driving was truly dangerous and I have no idea how a crash was avoided.

There are a number of websites offering the ability to upload footage of dangerous driving, where they moderate the footage, identify the driver driving dangerously or doing something wrong, then pass it on to the local police force.

A good example is They also help you identify the best cameras to buy!

Until next time ...


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More about Andrew Spencer ...

During Andrew's extensive business career he has worked in a wide cross section of companies, specialising in the creation of contact centres and business systems, software development, telecommunications and project management. Andrew's key skills are:

  • Business planning and strategy

  • Matching technology to business needs

  • Project management

  • Software development and implementation

  • Designing and implementing business systems

His work has included sourcing and implementing a new integrated telecoms system for National Energy Services, designing and project managing a new IT and telephony structure for the Greyhound Racing Association, and directing technology development for Wembley plc.


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