In the sixth post in this series on voices from the frontline, The Custody Sgt argues that social media is an integral part of his role enabling him to engage in dialogue with members of the public. However, he still needs to convince the doubters and worriers that his use of Twitter is useful and not a distraction from his other duties.
Reduced Service. We normally see this when we look at bus or train services. We may see it when our ISP or phone company lets us know of maintenance that will affect service provision.
On this occasion it refers to me.
So what am I talking about? Let me start with a little bit of background. I work in a large centralised custody suite. My team is made up of a number of Sgts and police staff detention officers. Our prime responsibility is the care, welfare and processing of those in custody in accordance with PACE 1984. I have over 20yrs experience in policing and so far have an unblemished career. I plan and hope to keep it that way and see out my 30 years.
The demand on staff in custody is very difficult to predict. The number of detainees in custody is no marker by which to judge how busy the staff are. You can have 30 people in custody and very little to do at a given moment. You can have 8 in custody and 4 Sgts and everyone of them working flat out. Every person has different needs and presents different risks and it is how we manage that risk that defines whether we stay safe or fall into the realm of discipline, complaints and in the worst case scenario criminal allegations or manslaughter. Quite a considerable risk and one that keeps you on your toes.
My social media journey has been a huge learning curve and I’m still very much learning. An account and blog that started as a bit of fun and an experiment has developed into something much bigger. My blog is approaching 100k hits (not much in comparison to others but something I’m pleased with) and my Twitter account is one of the largest anon police accounts in the UK. As I have grown and learnt I have seen the positives and negatives of using social media. I have seen accounts become national success stories (@mentalhealthcop). I’ve seen an anonymous account awarded a commendation (@constablechaos). I’ve seen accounts leaned on by PSD and closed. I’ve seen official accounts get it right and seen them also get it horribly wrong. I’ve seen officers allowed to tweet whilst things are going well and when a mistake is made they have had their account closed in knee jerk reactions and PSD called in to investigate. In between all that I too have got it right and on occasion got it wrong. I’m very grateful for the friendships and support network I have built up over my time on Twitter and the advice I have had from trusted sources such as Irene Curtis (@barrackslass), Clive Chamberlain (@MrCliveC) and our late Federation Chairman Paul McKeever.
A while ago I was pulled up by my Inspector and challenged on being @thecustodysgt. I wasn’t about to lie so I admitted it to him. We discussed the rights and wrongs and how I was tweeting and this eventually led to a meeting with the then Chief Inspector of custody. I had been tweeting from the desk at work during quiet periods and this was deemed to be unacceptable. The bottom line was to stop tweeting from the charge desk. #tweetfromthedesk had become popular but had to stop. What I did in my break was entirely up to me. She is however a good boss and actually focussed on the positives. She went on to comment that a lot of the information I was putting out was good and although I was wrong in how I went about it maybe I had something to offer the force.
This culminated in me spending a day with corporate communications dept. I met with several people and the social media lead and we discussed how the force uses social media (Twitter in particular) and how as a force we could improve. I made several suggestions on how things could be done better and they were well received. To date I haven’t seen any implemented. I suspect the blockage is higher up the ladder and also apathy, uncertainty and fear at the user end.
Those who have followed me for a while will recall me tweeting that the #tweetfromthedesk was over. Many we’re upset about this and Garry Forsyth (Assistant Chief Constable with West Mids – @garryforsythWMP) said;
“Bit of an over reaction I would think. Informative, engaging tweets that help the public understand the job better“
“To be honest I largely trust my people to do their jobs because I know they care which in the case of @thecustodysgt is evident that they do”
Prior to this the ACPO lead on social media Gordon Scobbie (Deputy Chief Constable of Tayside Police – @dcctayside) said in response to an #ff;
“Very kind. So much more to be done but have come a long way too thanks to people like you. Keep it up”
If ever their could be endorsements that I was doing something right then these to me are it. Regardless, the desk tweets stopped and I posted what content I could during my refreshments break. Occasionally I tweeted in between and added #screenbreaktweet which essentially was what it was. A tweet quickly pushed out whilst grabbing 2 minutes of fresh air.
My tweeting from the desk was a distraction from my duties and could put the detainees, the force or myself at risk. I was told that the account was mine and notwithstanding the content, was personal. Oddly I was told that if it were a force supported account then it would be a different matter. The logic of this was totally lost on me. Whilst highlighting my errors I was directed to a night shift where I had tweeted quite a lot. It even took me by surprise! I accepted it at face value but when I researched it later I found I had got engaged in a discussion with a young man from the West Midlands who wanted to be a police officer. It seemed like good engagement to me but it was not viewed as such from above. I stopped.
Whilst in this state of limbo I considered what else I did during my shift that may distract me from the primary function of detainee care and processing. I read and reply to emails, I deal with phone enquiries, I write statements and reports, I assist with projects, I collect management data and I get sent e-learning packages. All of these distract me from 100% detainee care. Yet these are deemed acceptable. In the case of a death in custody through neglect the IPCC and courts will not absolve me of responsibility because I was working through an NCALT course but nail me for tweeting. They will nail me regardless.
The fact of the matter is that you assess and manage your risks and you prioritise your attention all the time. At home I look after my children. Whilst doing so I can load the dishwasher, dust and clean, change the bedding, wash the car and cook the dinner. The children are not at risk but I continually monitor what they are up to and when circumstances dictate the priority changes. At work the implication is that if I tweet I will miss something or ignore it. This is a nonsense. Am I ignoring my other detainees whilst I read statements and make decisions on another? I will no more miss something by tweeting work related content than I will if I’m sat writing a statement. My priority changes and the matter at hand gets dealt with.
My account continues to grow in popularity. The public, journalists, councillors, MP’s, PCC’s, senior police officers, lawyers, barristers, QC’s, Federation reps/chairs, colleagues and many others all follow me. Since using Twitter my awareness of national issues both relevant to policing and not has grown considerably. I’m regularly asked questions on law and policing. Lawyers send me links to recent court results that may affect custody practice. I engage in discussions that I hope have a benefit for all the participants; they certainly do for me. In all my work, even though anonymous and not directly attributable to my own force I never seek to undermine the service. I will challenge decisions and statements where necessary but will never act in a way that would bring the service into disrepute. I’m not always right and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me all the time but that’s normal in every walk of life.
I tweet information about custody and some of the good work we do. I hope this helps to increase public confidence and trust. Transparency, especially in the current climate, is very helpful. I also tweet about some of the quirks of this job that are amusing or utterly frustrating. I have a strong road traffic background and also push a lot of information out about drink drive #StopitNOW and mobile phone use #nomobilewhenmobile and #igloodrivers. I was commended in the Golden Twits 2012 awards in the public service category. I also engage directly with a number of senior officers as we all try to break down the myths about social media use by police officers. I was specifically invited to Bramshill a few weeks ago to consult with senior officers to help with guidance on how officers can stay safe online. I must be doing something right?
With such a large account it almost stood to reason that after a period of time a few tweets would start seeping back in from the desk. Not a flood but there has recently been a steady trickle. In a recent email about an unrelated matter from my Inspector I got a p.s. “Stop tweeting for the desk” all credit to him for giving me a kick.
It’s a fair cop. I feel that my tweeting makes a difference and this is confirmed by a lot of the feedback my followers give me but as far as work is concerned it is a big “No No”. I disagree with this stance for all the reasons outlined above. However, whilst there is still a fear of social media and a separation of it from other police functions I’m going to struggle. If I were to give my detainees 100% of my attention all the time I would do no other work at all and sit staring at custody records for 12hrs. As it stands at the moment my prioritising allows me to use my time to the maximum and that to me can include police related social media engagement.
My job is to look after the detainees and tweeting about work and engaging with the public when safe to do so seems like a good plan to me. Across the country there are over 1000 tweeting cops with official accounts. From PCSO’S to CSI (SOCO to oldies like me), PC’s, Sgts right through to Chief Constables. We are all at it. Are they neglecting their role and their communities whilst tweeting? Are they busy telling you about a robbery in progress instead of attending? Are they ignoring a colleague shouting for assistance whilst they tweet about worsening road conditions? Of course not. They pick their moments and use social media as an additional tool in their armoury to tackle crime, share information about wanted or missing persons and engage with their communities as a human face of policing. I’m anonymous. I’m not directly attributable to my force so they cannot gain any credit for my work. Conversely they are not immediately embarrassed if I say something wrong but what I’m doing is EXACTLY the same as all the official accounts. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
I will end with some clarity. I will never EVER put my detainees at risk by ignoring them in favour of any other work related tasks including social media. That would be career suicide. I can imagine my wife’s face if I were home all day and she came home and found I’d done nothing all day but watch the children. My employer is the same. I would have management intervention if I did nothing during my working day other than scan custody records and process detainees.
I’m not signing off or throwing in the towel. I’ve come too far to throw this away lightly. However, much as it galls me, until I can convince the doubters and worriers that my tweets are safe, work related and not impactive on my primary function (in fact may be doing some good) I am going to have to stop tweeting from the desk completely.
From this point onwards you will see the same content but on a somewhat “reduced service”.
Courtesy of the Custody Sgt via The Custody Record
If you’re a frontline practitioner or service user and you’d be interested in contributing to this series, please do get in touch with us at: [email protected]