This week the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) took the unusual step of issuing a specific warning to police officers about their use of social media.
Michael Lockwood, the IOPC Director General noted that:
“From racist, sexist, and other discriminatory comments to photographing crime scenes and using social media to contact victims of crime for sexual activity, it is concerning that a small number of police officers appear to think that this is acceptable behaviour.
“In the most serious examples we have seen grossly offensive images and messages which the public would be appalled by. Making discriminatory remarks, and the sharing of graphic and offensive memes and images, is unacceptable under any circumstances.”
The article shared a letter Mr Lockwood wrote to the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC).
In that letter he noted that:
- “only the most serious cases come to the IOPC for investigation and it is likely there are other similar cases being dealt with locally which we are not aware of.”
- “the cases we are seeing may be indicative of broader cultural issues within some police forces.”
- “we have been investigating an increasing number of cases where police officers have abused their position for sexual purpose and contacted vulnerable people using social media.”
He urged the NPCC:
“to consider what mechanisms could be strengthened or need to be put in place at a national level to ensure there is sufficient scrutiny of this issue to maintain public confidence in policing.”
How the Police Abuse Social Media
While there are undoubtedly many fine officers in the police’s ranks, not every one of them can make us proud.
What kinds of people are employed by our country’s police forces, and how are they using social media? Recent news stories shed some light on the issue:
- Former Metropolitan Police officer Ben Hannam was convicted of membership of a neo-Nazi terrorist organization. Hannam also admitted possessing an indecent image of a child. The Guardian reports that:
Hannam, of Edmonton, north London, had been working as a probationary officer for the Met for nearly two years before he was found on a leaked database of users of extreme rightwing forum Iron March.
The Metropolitan Police dismissed Hannam without notice following his criminal conviction because “his behaviour was found to amount to a breach of the standards of professional behaviour.”
He has since been jailed for 4 years and 4 months.
- The Crown Prosecution Service is pursuing a criminal case against two serving Metropolitan Police officers.
The CPS has charged them with misconduct in public office in connection with an investigation into the deaths of two women in Wembley in June 2020. The officers are alleged to have taken and shared photographs of the crime scene.
- Another (now former) Metropolitan Police officer, Detective Sergeant Marc Tuffrey, “sent a string of sexual messages to another police officer and behaved in ‘unwanted sexual manner’.” He also made discriminatory comments verbally and in writing.
A disciplinary panel found that the former Detective Sergeant breached professional standards. The panel’s Chair said Tuffrey would have been dismissed without notice if he was still serving.
Commander Paul Betts described the former Detective Sergeant’s misconduct as “a blatant abuse of the trust his position as a police officer and supervisor afforded Tuffrey.”
Using Social Media to Abuse Authority for Sexual Gain
These cases are by no means unusual, and not restricted to the Metropolitan Police.
I have helped people bring civil actions against the police for over 20 years. During that time, I have seen an increase in the number of cases involving officers who, like those described above, exploit technology to abuse victims.
Some of the gravest matters I deal with involve clients who have suffered sexual abuse by police officers.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services defines this activity as “police abuse of authority for sexual gain.” It is:
a type of serious corruption, whereby police officers or police staff abuse their powers to sexually exploit or abuse people.
The National Police Chiefs Council describes it as a “disease” within the police.
Many of the police abuse of authority for sexual gain cases I deal with involve “grooming”: the process by which predators develop an emotional connection with a victim to prepare them for sexual abuse.
In my experience, officers often do this after helping an already-vulnerable victim of crime as part of their job, such as a victim of domestic abuse.
They use the information gained during the meeting, such as mobile phone numbers and social media details, to contact the innocent victim.
These police officers then groom their victims using text messages and messenger services like Facebook Messenger, social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, and encrypted apps like WhatsApp, Signal, and other tools.
When their abusive misconduct is finally revealed, police officers frequently argue that their interactions were private and consensual.
They were nothing of the sort.
Why is the Police Abuse of Social Media Happening?
Every case is different, but one constant appears to be that the guidance in the police’s Code of Ethics is not front-of-mind for many police officers.
The police have been bound by a Code of Ethics since 1829, when Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing were introduced (read more about them in this blog post: Will Cressida Dick Uphold Peel’s 9 Principles of Policing?).
Those principles include fundamentals such as:
To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
Police Code of Ethics Guidance on the Use of Social Media
The current version of the Code builds on Peel’s Principles. It is nearly seven years old (last published in July 2014).
This means that every police officer, from the probationer to the most experienced, ought to know the contents.
The Code of Ethics includes clear guidance on social media in the section on “Confidentiality”, which has as its core principle:
I will treat information with respect, and access or disclose it only in the proper course of my duties.
The Code says:
This standard also relates to the use of any platform of web-based or mobile communications, social networking sites, and all other types of social media.
While there are benefits of social media to policing, there are also potential risks.
According to this standard you must:
use social media responsibly and safely
ensure that nothing you publish online can reasonably be perceived by the public or your policing colleagues to be discriminatory, abusive, oppressive, harassing, bullying, victimising, offensive or otherwise incompatible with policing principles
not publish online or elsewhere, or offer for publication, 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 police service.
What the Code of Ethics Guidance Means
The guidance is clear. I read it this way:
- It covers all forms of mobile and internet-based communications including text messages (which are “mobile communications”). Officers cannot hide behind anonymous accounts or use encrypted apps. The requirements apply regardless of the method of electronic communication.
- Officers must (the deliberate use of this word means there is no room for doubt) use social media responsibly and safely. “Safely” includes a non-negotiable obligation to consider the well-being of the recipient, which is especially important when dealing with vulnerable victims of crime.
- Police must (again, no room for discussion) consider how their use of social media and text messages will be perceived by the recipient or reader (ie. the pubic and/or their colleagues). They have a duty to maintain the police’s reputation and must consider:
- if it is appropriate to communicate with someone using text messaging, social media apps etc. at all
- the language and tone used.
Risks of Ignoring Social Media Guidance
Is this too much to ask of our police? I don’t think so. One definition of a “professional” is a person who is bound by a code of ethics. Solicitors, teachers, doctors, and others fall within the definition.
The police are no different.
A failure to abide by their own Code of Ethics can form the basis of disciplinary action for breaches of professional standards. (Such breaches are why the officers described above were dismissed.)
Despite this risk, it appears that police officers ranging from probationers like Ben Hannam to seasoned officers like former Detective Sergeant Tuffrey, felt that they could act with impunity when using social media.
They wrongly behaved as if the Code of Ethics did not apply to them.
Police Recruitment Warning
The lack of restraint by some police officers when using social media is concerning, especially as this week the government crowed about the apparent success of its latest recruitment drive. It said that:
- 8,771 police officers have been recruited under the Police Uplift Programme
- the government is already 44% of the way towards meeting its ambition of hiring 20,000 additional officers by 2023.
On its face, this sounds positive. But I am concerned that corners may be cut when:
- vetting potential recruits
- giving ethics training
- making sure officers meet their professional obligations.
To deal with this:
- recruiters must do a better job of weeding out those who seek to exploit the unique authority held by the police for their own ends
- serving police officers must set an example by following the Code of Ethics, using social media responsibly, and notifying their superiors and/or regulators of breaches by colleagues
- police force Professional Standards Departments and the Independent Office for Police Conduct should get more resources and legal “teeth” to hold offenders to account.
The police and government should take this issue seriously. It matters: public trust in the police is at stake.
Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who represents people in civil actions against the police. Contact him here.