Social media 'at least half' of calls passed to front-line police

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Complaints originating from social media make up "at least half" of calls passed on to front-line officers, a senior officer has told the BBC.

Chief Constable Alex Marshall, head of the College of Policing, said the number of crimes arising from social media represented "a real problem".

He said it was a particular problem for officers who deal with low-level crimes.

About 6,000 officers were being trained to deal with online offences, he said.

He said the police and public were still trying to understand when online insults became a crime.

Mr Marshall told BBC Radio 4's Law in Action: "As people have moved their shopping online and their communications online, they've also moved their insults, their abuse and their threats online, so I see that it won't be long before pretty much every investigation that the police conduct will have an online element to it.

"It's a real problem for people working on the front line of policing, and they deal with this every day.

"So in a typical day where perhaps they deal with a dozen calls, they might expect that at least half of them, whether around antisocial behaviour or abuse or threats of assault may well relate to social media, Facebook, Twitter or other forms."

Alex Marshall Mr Marshall said police were being trained to deal with online crime
'There's a line'

A number of front-line police officers from different parts of the country spoken to by the BBC agreed with Mr Marshall's assertion that a significant amount of the calls they were asked to respond to were now related to social media, including death threats, bullying and harassment.

Det Con Roger Pegram, from Greater Manchester Police, said the way offences were committed had changed a lot since he joined the force 14 years ago.

"These are traditional offences," he said.

"You don't need to actually front someone up face-to-face in the street to threaten them.

"This can all be done from the comfort of your own home, a coffee shop with wi-fi, and these people can commit crime anywhere to anybody."

One officer, who did not wish to be named, said while there were serious complaints worthy of further investigation, many related incidents not considered crimes in the era before social media.

Find out more

You can listen to the full report on BBC Radio 4's Law in Action on Tuesday, 24 June at 16:00 and Thursday, 26 June at 20:00.

He said: "A lot of the time.. it's that whole attitude of, 'I don't know what to do, I'll call the police, they'll sort it out for me.'

"It should be a case of let's be sensible, let's not be friends with that person on Facebook, perhaps contact Facebook first or don't use Facebook. It's common-sense stuff."

Mr Marshall agreed that the police "couldn't possibly deal with every bit of nonsense and disagreement that occurs in social media".

"People throughout history have shouted abuse at each other and had disagreements and arguments and possibly said things that they regret later and the police have never investigated every disagreement between everyone," he said.

"So we have to be careful here that there's a line that needs to be drawn and if something is serious and it's a crime and someone is genuinely threatened or in the case of domestic abuse - maybe they're being coerced and treated deliberately in this way as a sort of punishment by a partner - that's a serious issue that we need to take on."

Public education required

Mr Marshall said a combination of police training, public education and enforcement by social media companies was required to combat the problem.

Although the director of public prosecutions's guidance was a "good starting point", Mr Marshall said, 6,000 officers were being trained over the next few months by the College of Policing - which sets all police standards in England and Wales - to make judgments about when a complaint identified a pattern of behaviour that required further investigation.

And while anecdotal evidence from officers indicates that dealing with complaints arising from social media now absorbed a significant amount of their time, it is not yet borne out in the figures.

Currently, online crimes are recorded under traditional headings such as harassment or threats to kill and not as a cybercrime, so each record is required to be read individually to ascertain if the crime originated on social media.

Mr Marshall said because of that, the force was missing out on information.

The College of Policing was currently carrying out research to quantify how many crimes actually originate on social media, he said, and was expecting the results in the next couple of months.

The Home Office said that it had introduced a voluntary "flag" this year that would enable forces to highlight online crime "to further improve our understanding of where crime occurs".

This is expected to become mandatory by 2015/16.

Hear the full report on Law in Action on Tuesday, 24 June at 16:00 and Thursday, 26 June at 20:00. You can listen again via the BBC Radio 4 website or by downloading the free Law in Action podcast.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    92. Athame57
    As a Wiccan Witch I'd been threatened with BURNING on the AOL Religion message boards, what should I have done...called the cops? Would they have apprehended the Fundamentalists or told me to go to Hell?
    Flipside is whether the person threatening to burn you actually means it. There are a fair few nutters online. That WOULD be a police matter. Who decides if its a genuine threat?

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    A local pub was recently closed down having lost it's licence because in the words of the police it was the cause of significant levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.

    If facebook and twitter etc are being used as a vehicle for criminal activity then close them down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    To Be really honest, with the exception of a few cases most of these problems are brought on by the people that wrap their sad little lives in social media.
    I for one, knew that telling the everything about yourself on these sites would lead to all sorts of issues and I am proven right.
    Go out and find some friends. It worked for years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    Quite frankly the vast majority of this stuff should not involve the police. It is a complete waste of their time. If you get hassle off someone on Facebook or other social media, block them, complain to the administrators. Why anyone should get upset over some sad key board warrior who has nothing better to do with their sad sat at home with no friends lives is beyond me. Grow a pair people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    45. "Good grief! Next there will be a law against "looking at someone a bit funny"."

    Don't worry, they are already lobbying to outlaw the "eye-rape" of women. Cultural marxists will never be satisfied until every speck of individual responsibility and freedom is crushed as "hate-speech". Their agenda is to break the free individual and impose a political doctrine, and social media is the start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    As has been mentioned, surely it can't be that difficult to tell stupid people to turn off their computers?

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    I can just imagine it now.
    A 10 year old girl sitting at her computer with a picture of a big burly policeman as an avatar typing "You're nicked sunshine"

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    As far as I'm concerned, these social media sites, along with many others, have become bloated & out of control through sheer greed. If you set up a club or function you're obliged to adopt sufficient means to regulate numbers, monitor the clientèle & evict promptly where necessary. You do not contractually leave them to their own devices & rely on the police to be on hand to do the job for you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    It's a lot easier than breaking up a drunken brawl on a Saturday night. I suspect the police don't mind the online name calling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Bullying starts with children and so parents and schools need to do much more to understand it and its evolution into cyber-bullying.

    As for those of you quoting "sticks and stones..", I guess you've never experienced the suicide of a child as a consequence of online bullying. Sadly it happens all too often.

    Spend much more money on education, training, counselling and prevention measures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    As a police officer I can say that numerous complaints are made of 'crimes' that involve only texting, which result in many hours of enquiry.

    Most of these relate to 'domestic' incidents where officers are not permitted to use any discretion.

    Regardless of how trivial the incident officers must then detain the suspect who will be destined for court, even when the complainer wishes no action.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    I'd love to call the police every time I see a photo of food, someone's dog or their children on social networking. Utterly offensive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Friends of mine who are police officers complain that the police force is hellbent on meeting targets.
    Social media records "crimes" for quick reference, which is much easier than following leads, hearing two sides of a story, doing real police work.

    Better return on investment for Police plc, worse return on investment for the taxpayer and society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    This latest govt announcement is clearly designed to increase anti-police feeling, as an attempt to soften up public opinion, ahead of privatisation.

    If the police are overloaded by social media complaints, then it is high time that Facebook paid some taxes in the UK. That way, they can pay for the policing of the moronic elements of social media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I though this country represented free speach, regardless whether it may "offend" someone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    i think people who report such stupid things should be fined for wasting police time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    I can understand when people are threatened or badly bullied that they may feel the need to contact the Police.

    But people do not have the right not to be offended. If you are then 'unfriend' or block that person, or better still don't use social media at all and go and physically see your friends and talk face to face.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    If some degree of "reactive moderation" took place, within the structure of Facebook, or Twitter, as it does within the context of this Comments section, then this could all be avoided.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Sadly this is how our society has changed. Morals, scruples and honesty are disappearing fast.

    If people want a better place to live, don't wait for politicians to provide it or the police to police it, its up to you as individuals. Stop quoting sayings like Nanny state, the future is in yours and my hands no one else's. You reap what you sow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Although incessant, online bullying should always be treated as the criminal offence it is, maybe people should view social media like playing a team sport where you know a bit of verbal abuse comes with the territory and every insult or foul does not warrant police involvement. I guess the difference is a spoken insult is passing, while a written one is effectively repeated every time it's read.


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