Anonymous Blogging

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In the wake of PC Nick Manning and his tweeting being under the microscope I thought I would write a blog. Although I’m not going to comment on that particular case because it’s an ongoing investigation I hope by the end of this you’ll see my position on the whole matter. After this news story I began to see tweets and blogs discussing anonymous bloggers so I thought that being one of them it’s only fair that I add my views and reasons on the matter. As far I can tell, there appears to be two matters here, police officers using twitter/social media(SM), and secondly those that do it anonymously. So where to start? It’s probably best to start by saying why I tweet, then move on to the issue of anonymity.

I wanted to use Twitter to help the public understand the police service, so that they may view us in a better light and understand some of our thought processes and our procedures so they can see what we actually do in day-to-day policing, it’s a side that’s often not seen and rarely shown on any of the police program’s on TV. I hoped by tweeting and blogging that I would be able to engage with public, not just in an attempt to help the police/public relationship, but more importantly on a personal level I wanted to improve my understanding of how the public view the police and how I could improve as a police officer to make things better for members of the public. I think that there is a high probability that I could learn something from others and become a better officer.

The problem is, I often feel like police officers aren’t allowed to have opinion for fear of receiving disciplinary action, as I spoke about in one of my earlier blogs, people often forget that we are also human beings, we have opinions, feelings and when we take the uniform off we are just the same as anyone else, let’s not forget one of the founding principles of the police from Sir Robert Peel – ‘The police are the public and the public are the police.’ I think that the public have a right to know, and with everyone talking about accountability and transparency I honestly believe that I’m helping the public to understand some of the challenges that we face every day. I’m by no means ‘taking the law into my own hands’, but just trying to help do my bit. Just as if as I would talk to a member of the public on the street to help our image, I will happily have a conversation about policing on Twitter (within reason) for the same gain.
Following on from this is something that is regularly discussed in the media…Human Rights. Human rights are regularly cited in court and the media but what about Article 10? This is the right to freedom of expression, so I wonder does this apply to police officers?

A lot of what I say is my own personal opinion, but i think just as its important for officers to see it from someone else’s point of view, sometimes it’s just as important for someone to see from a police officers point of view.

Moving on to anonymity. Well, there a few different reasons why I choose to tweet and blog behind the facade of @laptop_cop, one of these reasons (in no particular order), is the safety of my family. We deal with some horrible, unscrupulous people, and occasionally they make threats towards us. (Only yesterday a colleague of mine got told by someone he’d arrested that they were going to find his daughter and wife so he could rape them). Now I know that most of the time they are just comments said in the heat of the moment through anger/frustration and nothing will ever happen, but all it takes is one of these people to actually carry out a threat and I don’t think that’s worth the risk.

In the 21st century, with all the technology available and the Internet, it’s not hard to track people down. I know the job advises us against using social media, but other people in my family might still use it, and I can hardly get them to stop.
I regularly help to police events and protests in central London and it’s becoming common place that we are filmed by members of the public (usually so called ‘legal advisers’), I.e. they walk along the cordons, taking officers names and filming them so that I assume in the event something happens later on in the day they can say what officers were where and who might have been involved. Whilst I can understand this, and it may even be a good thing in some situations
, if that information is published on the Internet it is then available to anyone, forever (which could also have consequences if you want a future career in covert policing). All it takes is one person to publish your name, or a photo and it’s out there in the ether forever. Maybe I’m being over the top but is it worth risking?

Rightly or wrongly I always assumed that the police were given shoulder/collar numbers to not only identify us within the job, but also so that we didn’t give our names out to members of the public, you shoulder number was your identification. Only now for some reason we all have to wear name badges, possibly so it makes us more accountable? I don’t know the real reason, but in my opinion we shouldn’t have to wear name badges, after all if someone wishes to make a complaint they can give my shoulder number to the inspector, it’s still me. I just don’t think anything can be gained from officers wearing their names. Maybe someone can enlighten me on this?

I know people reading this will say that this is extreme that someone would genuinely threaten a police officers family, but unfortunately in our job we often deal with worst case scenarios, and a saying that I live by is “prepare for the worst, hope for the best”, this way I can’t be caught out.

It’s fair to say I spend quite a lot of my life living in fear of being summoned to the Superintendent’s office, or getting a knock at my door because the DPS (the professional standards office) have investigated Laptop_cop and found out who I am. However, in relation to the content of my tweets, I never tweet about anything operational and never tweet anything that could compromise active cases or operations. In fact, I rarely tweet about actual stuff that happens at work it’s mostly my opinions. As far as I can recall, I never tweeted anything that I wouldn’t say to a member of the public in the street. This is something that appears to be very blurred at the moment, if I bump into someone whilst out on foot patrol and talk to them about policing cuts or a general chat about the police I’m seen to be engaging with the community, yet if I tweet the very same things I worry that I could face disciplinary action. Is there a difference? I’m not sure there is, yes there is a much wider audience on Twitter and I may have journalists that follow me (I can’t control who follows me or not), but it’s still the same information. I know there is obviously a line, it’s not like I would call my local paper and give them a juicy storey about the police but how are blogs regarded? I could be wrong and if someone could tell me the distinction I’d be grateful.

Anonymity, in my opinion is key for openness in such serious and thought provoking matters. Someone, especially a police officer is much more likely to be open and give an honest view if they can do so without fear of reprisals (I mean from the professional standards people). Much like when business meetings are held under ‘The Chatham House Rule’ (Chatham House website )to encourage free speaking and openness, I think the same could be said for blogging/tweeting.

I’ve looked through our guidelines for officers wishing to use social media in their own time, and as far as I’m aware I stick to them. Although I’ve told people who I work for, no one actually knows who I am. So from what I can tell, the only thing which seems to be a catch-all is the point which talks about bringing the MPS into disrepute or compromising its effectiveness.

I’ve looked up ‘disrepute’ in the dictionary and it’s defined as ‘The state of being held in low esteem by the public’. Something I wanted to achieve when I set up this blog was to highlight to the public some of the processes and things that the police have to deal with which they otherwise wouldn’t ever know about. By doing this I don’t believe that the public will hold the MPS in low esteem, if anything I believe it would be quite the opposite, it can only help to gain greater support for the police in the face of the cuts by highlighting to the public the daily challenges that we face.

In summary, I think that as long as officers aren’t tweeting about live operations or jobs (unless its something the public could help with, e.g. Missing person, recently stolen car) then is there really a problem? Do the public have a right to know what it’s actually like, from the officers themselves, not what the media want to the public to know?
I do think there needs to be better guidelines on blogging/tweeting and the possible consequences of it however I understand it’s still a very new concept, something that professional standards need to do though is to educate the officers! God knows we love a powerpoint presentation, or NCALT package (computer based learning) in the police, so why not include social media into our mandatory training. Rather than trying to prevent officers from using social media, why not help them to do it in a way that can benefit the service and the public.

I’d love to hear your views, for or against so please comment….

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11 responses

  1. Christopher David Servante | Reply

    There are lots of police on twitter, many make themsleves plainly open as police, at the same time there are many who prefer to be anonymous. If the police wish to blog anonymously … let them. I have never seen a tweet that has actually given a full name and address of a current drugs bust etc ( and hopefully never will ) And I reckon the police should engage and use twitter a lot more, in the hopes they might get more information a lot quicker by simply asking! But that ask can only be done by officers who are not anonymous. I actually do have sympathy for anyone who uses the right of free speech, only to have it thrown back at them by their employers! Free speech ( or free tweet ) is everyones right no matter who they are and whatever their vocation ! But the #nofaithintheresamay I personally thought was a bit naughty and possibly over the line !

    1. I think you could be right about engaging and not being anonymous. I think if I had a much greater guidance from my employers and wasn’t worried about misconduct I might not be anon. And it’s true what you say about the full name.

      Remaining anonymous and trying to engage with the local community wouldn’t work. I know there are some forces that encourage it and officers have official accounts and that’s definitely the way forward I think.

  2. I believe dialog is vital, and Twitter or Blogs have made a significant contribution to my understanding of the daily life of an Officer (possibly also put me off joining up!). However, your safety has to be the number 1 priority, so I think we will always see a combination of “official” and “unofficial” accounts. I don’t see that as a bad thing; in all walks of life it much more enlightening to get the inside track, whether that’s policing, healthcare or any other job both private or public. Please keep on keeping on!

  3. Good blog which certainly informs us all on the use of anonymous accounts.
    It is worth remembering though that social media is frighteningly new for the Police Service with some forces only just setting up their accounts.
    In years gone by Police Officers had to remain totally impartial withholding their personal opinions and views. No one could have foreseen including Sir Robert Peel how society and indeed social media would develop years later.
    Times change, society moves forward with time and organisations generally have to catch up.
    Sir Robert Peel would certainly be turning in his grave but not for a terrible reason but for the good!
    Society now has an expectation of clarity and transparency who knows what the future will bring? In this constantly changing environment Police Officers will choose to push boundaries and plug the gaps for societies hunger for this clarity and transparency especially during this gripping time of austerity until organisations learn to catch up. Take care during this time not to step too far across that thin blue line so as to attract that discipline letter though. It’s just not worth the hassle.
    You are not alone this issue is reflected in all Public Services.

    Balance and justification is the answer . . .

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  6. As one who started out in ‘anonymous’ social media, whilst still a serving police officer, I subsequently ‘converted’ to a more open and transparent methodology post retirement.

    I have allways believed in the principle of ‘put up or shut up’ and ‘stand up to be counted’ i.e. be not affraid of voicing an opinion. The problem is, as I often found to my detriment whislt serving, many senior officers, public sector officials and politicians don’t like their methods being challenged.

    If your opinion or words succeed in highlighting any poven inadequacy, so much the better, for the benefit of all involved, not least the public. Just beware the actions of the ‘witchfinder generals’ after the event.

    If fully appreciate the concerns and worry of serving police officers using social media, the opness of organisations is not what it should/could be, at least not yet.

  7. I’ve worked for charities, public sector and private employers. They’re all the same: challenge their dictatorships and they’ll hit you with a ton of bricks. It’s all very well having laws ‘protecting’ freedom of speech, disability rights, gender rights, privacy rights and the like but nobody actually cares about them, let alone enforces them.

    Those who serve the public in any capacity should be able to speak openly about the rubbish (and downright fraud and illegality) that goes on behind closed doors, without fear of retribution. Unfortunately, that is not the case and so the rot continues and the taxpaying public continues to be oblivious. If they knew how much of their charity donations were wasted on ‘administration’ and perks for managers they’d never put their hand in their pockets again.

  8. ExRNnowpolicestaff | Reply

    That’s a very thought provoking blog, I think the points made above about balance between pointing out systemic failings, safety of officers families on one hand and involving (missing persons) or educating the public are all good arguments for both sides of the ‘anonymous’ versus ‘open’ debate.

    I think police force twitter accounts, or the likes of the West Mids Supt Mark Payne are good for getting info out to people: following them last summer allowed me to get a handle on what was happening viz the riots.

    Tweeting or blogging about personal opinions of failings in the system such as Inspector gadget, or your posts about how things are the way they are are better as anonymous names to protect you from the wrath of those at the top who don’t like to hear opposing views and to protect you from the threats of those arrested folk who take a dislike to being told that no someone else’s mobile is not theirs to take just because its new and shiny.

    As for the names on coats, badges etc I think that’s down to ‘being more approachable’ as much as ‘more accountable’ as I’ve heard tell that during the Miners’ Strike and other times in the 80s some officers would remove their shoulder numbers so as not to be identified.

  9. Interesting stuff. I believe you are right to remain anonymous, if only because it’s what you wish. It clearly isn’t worth the risk to yourself or your family and who would want you to be wise after the event. I’ve been following cops on twitter for a year or so now. The number of accounts have multiplied and most seem pretty humourous and keen to interact with joe public which is me ( well Joanna Public) and I’ve learned a great deal. I’ve always been very pro the Polices but this really has shown the human face of it all.

    As no one seems to be over stepping the line in terms of inappropriate detail etc (although i guess there will always be someone who does, the minority though and probably mainly by mistake rather than deliberately) surely senior offices should see this a a good thing, set standards so everyone feels comfortable that they know how to keep safe on twitter witin the confines of the job and maybe, just maybe have a go themselves. Might learn something.

    I’m not too sure what minimum rank a senior officer is but i follow @chsuptbartlett who seems a really decent guy. Assuming he is senior( sounds it to me!) then if he can do it surely so can others.

    Keep up the good tweeting and blogging. Lots of people out there really enjoy it and it definetely makes the police more human.

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