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A recent study has revealed the benefits an active social media presence has to the public opinion of European police outfits.

Researchers from the COMPOSITE Project – short for “Comparative Police Studies in the EU” – who carried out the study interviewed IT experts from police forces in 13 European countries.

They discovered that in places where the local police do not have a strong social media presence, “unofficial” profiles spring up to provide the service in their place, keeping the population informed on police matters.

One such Facebook page in Berlin has over 15,000 members, whilst a police-supporting Twitter account in the Dutch region of haaglanden has 2,500 followers.

"Police work in general and specific incidents are discussed in the social media anyway," said Dr Sebastian Denef from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology, who coordinates the project. "Therefore, the question is not whether the social media are appropriate for police topics, but how the police forces get involved and reap the benefits. If the police is not active, others fill the void."

The study illustrates the importance of a police presence on social media during “large scale crises”, citing the 2011 London riots as an example of an event “when citizens need to be informed in time and look for a credible source of information and advise”.

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During the London riots last year, both the London Metropolitan Police and the Greater Manchester Police maintained an active social media presence and, as a result, “all police forces saw significant rise in their follower numbers (up to 100,000 for the Greater Manchester Police from about 20,000 before the riots).”

Social media is also vital to police forces as a way of reaching a new, internet-savvy generation, says the study: "Younger people.... simply do not subscribe to local newspapers any longer and often get their news solely via social media".

Social Media can also promote wider community involvement in policing. Ed Rogerson, a community police officer of the North Yorkshire Police, “reports that he is tweeting when he is out on patrol and what he is investigating. He also published crime appeals and gives crime prevention advice.”

The informality of social media provides the police with a platform on which “to talk about positive news, emotions, police culture and experiences of daily life," and, "as a result the public describes and welcomes the police as a human organisation that can be trusted."

Police forces have not only been using Twitter and Facebook, they “have been using YouTube channels to publish videos and Flickr for publishing photos”. A Pennsylvanian newspaper has collaborated with the local police to publish wanted photos on Pinterest, to great success.

In summary, the report explains their intention to “provide an overview of the current issues that police forces face and the strategies that they have developed to address them. Other forces or organizations then can make use of this description by individually evaluating the fit for their individual needs”.

“Social media use is likely to continue to grow” said Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie from ACPO in an interview with the BBC, “and, on balance, the advantages of social media use by the police outweigh the disadvantages”.

Do you agree with Chief Constable Scobbie that the advantages of social media use by the police outweigh the disadvantages?

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Will Sigsworth

Follow us @SocialMediaF & @WillAtSMF

www.socialmediafrontiers.com