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Police Code of Ethics: Do they go far enough on Social Media?

30 October 2014 | 01:36 am

In July 2014, the College of Policing released the “Code of Ethics – Principles and Standards of Professional Behaviour for the Policing Profession of England and Wales”.

Outlining the standards by which Policing will follow, we consider how the code impacts on the day to day delivery of social media and what lessons the forces as a whole can learn?

As a background, the standard is designed to guide all those involved in Policing. And we mean ALL! The Code is not just for those in uniform, stating that “every person working in policing will adopt the Code of Ethics” and that individuals “will use this as a guide for all behaviour at work, at home, online and offline”.

The code of ethics is designed to clearly define and establish best practice standards, with the aim of bringing Policing in line with other professions, such as doctors and lawyers by having a defined level of behaviour and conduct. The very nature of the document itself seeks to reassure the British Public that there is a continual spotlight on Policing standards as well as outlining the key metrics and tools by which performance shall be measured.

Underpinning the Code are 9 Policing Principles.  Values based, these principles reflect those required to deliver an elite policing culture and the key responsibilities of officers and staff in achieving this. The principles include values such as Accountability, Integrity, Leadership, Openness and Selflessness.

Although straight forward in their nature, the challenge of applying the principles comes from their influence and interactivity with each other. For example, the decision between Openness and Integrity, whether to release information to be transparent or withhold it to uphold Integrity?

The relationship between the police and social media has been credited with achieving a much broader change in public perception of the communication channel as a whole, initiated by the riots in 2011. For the first time the British public turned to twitter and other social forums to keep up to date, minute by minute with progress and trouble spots rather than turning on their TV or Radio.

At this time, social media channels were being used to give leadership and openness, allowing the public to see first hand the selflessness of the Police in trying to calm the unrest.  The police were hailed as innovators and it was very gratifying to witness communications team from the commercial sector, eavesdropping on presentations given by heads of policing comms teams at Beyond Social back in 2013 to see what they could learn from the public sector who had grasped social media full on.

We have seen many great examples of the police forces forging ahead with social media delivery in recent months, improving public awareness of the issues and addressing public perception of policing.  Just last week we reported on the successful 24hr Twitterthon by Greater Manchester Police. 

Social media channels are also being used increasingly by the British Public to report incidents and collaborate on public disorder.  This increase in the use of social media as a customer service tool is a pattern that is destined to continue. The reality is that a problem faced by a member of the public is likely to be replicated for others and a social media channel allows ‘public notices’ to be shared effortlessly.  The effectiveness is reflected in the number of Police forces signing up to the Twitter Alert Service allowing people to gain public updates that impact them locally.

The Code of Ethics in section 7.4 reads:

“While there are benefits of social media to policing, there are also potential risks”.

At CrowdControlHQ we see these “risks” every day and how they impact on the individual and organisations alike.  It is not by chance that as the UK’s leading social media risk management platform we work with 30% of the police forces in the UK.  We are fortunate that in the past 12 months there has been much stricter tightening of social media policy and governance, with the onus on police forces to choose social media management products/ platforms and systems that are not only based in the UK but that can provide a penetration testing certificate and evidence that security testing has taken place to reduce the risk of security breaches.

And whilst there are an increasing raft of North American products flooding the market, we see that the UK is getting savvy to the issue of compliance and the importance of accessing a responsive (and local) customer support team. So we see evidence that the #BuyBritish message is getting through.

Whilst there has been considerable progress on tackling the ‘Operational risk’ of social media. A police force that is involved in social is effectively saying that it is ‘open for business’ and by definition listening, monitoring and protecting users associated with their social media assets.  With this in mind, police forces can ask themselves has it happened to us before? Has it happened within my sector? Is there a real risk of this happening one day and set up the infrastructure and process to counter the known risks.

We have worked with the Police Service for many years and see the impact of the reputation damage on the Service and their stakeholders when it goes wrong. So we would argue that operational risks are very real risks and needs to be addressed before any social media campaign goes live.

It is also important to note that risks can be internal (staff, representative) or external (e.g. security breaches, trolls, proactive users who perhaps squash views operating within self interest).

We do have some concern that the Code of Ethics puts too much responsibility on the individual. Of course there is a need to uphold the highest professional standards, be accountable for their own actions and to question unprofessional behaviour of those around them.  The code rightly covers Social Media officers and staff when posting, in work and while “off duty”.

The code states that a policing representative may:

“….Not publish online or elsewhere, any material that might undermine your own reputation or that of the policing profession or might run the risk of damaging public confidence in the policing service”.

There are indeed many cases which are pretty clear cut in this regard.  However, there also many ‘grey’ areas which we believe need greater focus and management.  Installing the principle of ‘Openeness’ has led to ‘honest broker’ posting by ‘bobbies on the beat’ via social media.  Truly eye opening for the public but we must also give the policing teams the support, training and infrastructure to protect them in often high pressure situations.

In our much debated blog 'Crash Scene Selfies' we recommend a four step approach to safeguard the risks for the individuals including:

  • Establish clear objectives for the communications channel
  • Ensure Policy is in place
  • Give training
  • Underpin front line delivery with moderation tools to support from afar

The example, of the high media profile given to the ‘Crash Scene Selfies’ debate and countless others, highlights the challenges that our police forces (and Fire, Ambulance services) will face in the future.  Indeed, the ROI on social media in terms of reaching deep into the increasingly ‘mobile’ savvy community and the level of engagement is likely to push more public service authorities to shift their focus into social.

But hark our warning that there will be some that enter the social media jungle without preparing appropriately for the journey ahead, cutting the risks down to size and tackling them one by one.  So whilst we applaud the guidelines, we also encourage you to delve a little deeper into what best practice looks like in policing around social media and help shape the debate to allow innovation to sit comfortable alongside managing the risks.

Got a view? Please share it below or with us @CrowdControlHQ

Gareth Godfrey

Divisional Director

CrowdControlHQ is the UK’s leading social media risk and compliance platform, built for enterprises. Our platform underpins the great work of innovative police forces across the UK who are pushing the boundaries and shaping public perception, using social media.

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