Is Merseyside Police's Twitter presence a waste of officers' time?

The Woodchurch Community Twitter account is probably one of the most vocal to Merseyside Police Wirral West online.

Last month alone they tweeted of complaints ranging from “LARGE groups” kicking fences and banging lamp posts with sticks, illegal parking offences on tight roads, and trial bikes with no lights speeding along Hoole Road.

No response.

Over in Wallasey the force’s Twitter account for the area is coming in for a kicking from local residents. After their account tweeted about a fixed penalty notice of £50 for cyclists found riding on the pavement, a Conor Sullivan said “maybe you could be dedicating the time to hunting the people stealing and destroying motorbikes on a daily basis instead?”.

Others ask about legal advice, such as if they’re allowed to post CCTV images of a property theft on social media to warn other locals. A lady asks why the police helicopter was dispatched, connecting the dots herself to “a large fire near the docks”.

No response.

Andy Shute laments a special report from the force about cracking down on crime in Birkenhead. “looking (sic) for gangs of yobs in sub zero temps is a joke where were you in the autumn?” he asks the force’s Birkenhead Twitter account. Another accuses an officer of the force of assaulting a man in handcuffs.

No response.

And communications with the Wirral South account are relatively slim, bar a tweet from Gary Kirby in November 2015, a victim of motorbike theft, asking Wirral South and other forces if they’re going to start taking action on thieves following his interview with the Liverpool Echo.

No response.

The Thin Blue Tick

That’s not to say they don’t communicate with people as a rule. Woodchurch Community tell us they have replied in some instances, but overall, interactions with the public across the accounts are rare.

Merseyside Police logo

So we sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request over to Merseyside Police asking about its use of the social network to get a better idea of how the force works uses it behind the scenes.

According to the site itself Merseyside Police has an astonishing 32 Twitter accounts covering the North West, with four concentrating on the Wirral.

Only, every account in its bio discourages reporting a crime through Twitter, instead asking people to call either 999 in an emergency or 101 in the bio of each profile. So what’s the point of having so many accounts if communication is discouraged and force members don’t appear to be communicating effectively with the public? Twitter, after all, is perfect for quick micro conversations.

Let’s have a look at time spent. “Wirral’s 4 Twitter accounts are used by 20 police officers who have been trained on social media. There are two Digital Media Officers employed by the force, amongst other things they manage and monitor all force Twitter accounts including Wirral’s. Their salary range is £24,000 – £29,000.

“Police Officer’s (sic) [spend] around 30 minutes per day per account.  Digital Media Officers – around 1 hour a day.”

We called Merseyside Police to clarify that last bit as we got a bit muddled with our maths and worked that out at 280 hours a week, which can’t be right… (N.B. Officers’ figures only. We think because of the way the FOI response has been worded we’re wrong. Wirral Way got a D in foundation GCSE maths…)

Merseyside Police say that, in actuality, officers are spending 14 hours a week on Twitter. Given that there are other social accounts for the force, too, and two digital officers earning just shy of the £30k barrier, 14 hours still looks a lot of time spent by officers on a service that effectively generates no real results.

In the (on)line of duty

Let’s expand on that a bit. “The force does not promote reporting of crime or incidents through social media they are and directed to 101, 999 or online reporting,” says our FOI. Why did we ask that when it’s already clear in each area’s Twitter bio?

We didn’t. These were our three original questions, all answered by the above statement:

  •          How many crimes have been reported via Twitter regarding the Wirral?
  •          How many have been solved without a police presence having to attend the scene?
  •          How many crimes reported via Twitter have led to convictions and prosecutions?

The response says it all. If we assume the accounts were all started around the same time as the overall Merseyside Police account (April 2009) then that’s a lot of officers’ time and force resources spent on achieving little of note across 30-plus Twitter accounts over the years.

Could there be a reduction in the number of Merseyside Police Twitter accounts? “It would be feasible if Neighbourhood Teams [were] reduced.” Hmm…

Could there be a reduction in the number of Merseyside Police Twitter accounts?

Merseyside Police tell us that their Twitter accounts are a signpost for people so they can report crimes in a more detailed manner. Which is fair enough; Twitter isn’t software that can record integral criminal details such as addresses, names, previous offences and more.

Nobody’s questioning the work Merseyside Police’s officers are doing, the recent tragic case of Dave Philips shows how normal people like you and I are putting on a uniform and risking death every single day when they confront criminals.

But at a time when cuts are being felt across the borough and the wider nation, and there’s already miles of red tape choking our officers and keeping them behind desks, is Twitter really an effective use of our local officers’ time?

Merseyside Police is also using the aptly-named CrowdControlHQ social media management software to manage its Twitter accounts. “The basic management and monitoring plan is used,” says the force’s FOI response.

“The force does not pay for Crowd Control staff.  There are 4 Wirral Twitter accounts, with five users per account, which equals 20 licence holders.  The cost is £6 per licence per month. Giving a total of £1,440 annually.”

For time and money spent on Merseyside Police’s Twitter presence, discouraging crime leads and recording zero convictions leads us to question the force’s amount of accounts and, more importantly, the time spent on them by officers.

Local forces like Merseyside Police have a large Twitter audience they can connect with

Social responsibility

Those accounts must be providing something of use for them to exist though, surely? The Wirral accounts have followers in the hundreds while the Merseryside Police account is just shy of 77,000 followers at the time of writing.

Local forces therefore do have an audience to connect with. And despite the 140-character limit of Twitter, some useful warnings have been published, such as the Wirral West account posting in March “Businesses be aware Forged Scottish £20 notes are being used in the area again” (sic).

Tweets also try and push awareness of campaigns such as recruiting for the force and THINK!, as well as information such as when certain roads will be closed and appeals for missing persons. The odd link is also present, leading back to the force’s site featuring longer-form press releases with more information.

Despite the good it can potentially do though, the communication aspect (which is the point of social media) simply isn’t there. Lapses of concentration leading to rape jokes and other forces laughing about meat thieves hardly endear the marriage between the police and Twitter to the public’s conscious.

For us, we’d rather the presence be more visible on the streets than on social media. Then again, the foundations for the force are there, too. Maybe with just a few tweaks Merseyside Police’s Twitter presence can be put to better use in combating crime and doing good for the local community.

(Images: CC BY-ND 2.0 Richard Haughy, CC BY-SA 2.0 5DII – No changes made)