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Sussex police leap into social media

Sade Laja Published 10 November 2011

Sussex police leap into social media

New project aims to give the public an insight into policing through blogs, web chats and Twitter

Martin Richards says there are always risks when you decide to open up your day to day operations to the public.

"We knew that there were elements of warts and all," says the chief constable of Sussex police. "We recognised that we were going to make mistakes, but that's the nature of the business I think. The fact that we were prepared to show everything, I hope is an indication of our intent."

The force launched its 'Sussex Police People' transparency initiative on 28 October, offering the public online access to officers through live video streaming on the force's website, blogs, web chats and Twitter. The aim of the year long project is to forge closer links with the community.

Sussex has selected 12 employees for the initiative from a cross-section of frontline policing and back room functions, including human resources, CID and the deep dive unit. These chosen "characters", as Richards calls them, will blog and interact with the public for a year.

"They will continue as characters, hence the title Sussex Police People, with a series of events that people can tune in on," he says. "The aim is that they will become familiar faces for the people of Sussex."

Richards says the launch was a success, with more than 62,000 people viewing the video streams, over 5,000 chat messages and around 2,500 comments and questions left for officers.

He adds: "It's a fantastic start, which is how I see it, and the main purpose was to demonstrate, particularly in these difficult times, our absolute transparency."

The whole project will cost less than £6,000. Richards explains that this is considerably less than holding street meetings with local police officers for the public to attend, which only attract between 20 to 30 people at a time. The force streamed a meeting in Hove online and about 900 joined, which he says shows that the drive to use digital tools to interact with the public is worthwhile.

"Transparency and public confidence; the two go together really. I think that we face increasing financial pressures, and we have to police in increasingly innovative ways to ensure that we are making changes and developments that the public recognise and support. It makes public engagement really important."

Showing the public all the different dimensions to policing has given Sussex the opportunity to show the more mundane activities that the force carries out. Richards explains: "There would have been times on the launch day of the project when policing would have looked very very dull, but most of the time I think it looked very interesting and very positive."

The 12 characters have been "a bit surprised" by the exposure that they have had since the project went live, reveals Richards, but he says that they are slowly adapting. The vast majority of Sussex police's workforce has been supportive, but there have been "one or two critics" to its new transparent approach.

He says it is too soon to think about what will happen after the year's up, but that he believes the force has uncovered something of real value in both communications terms and for operational policing.

"I think it's something that has got a variety of possibilities and great potential for the future," he says. "At pre-planned events we run, a live blog from the command team running an operation might very well be helpful. We already use social media for fast time operations anyway, and I think that this is just the next step."

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