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Sheffield police use Twitter in crowd control

Tracey Caldwell Published 09 January 2012

Sheffield police use Twitter in crowd control

South Yorkshire police have been using mobile social media to engage with protesters in the city, writes Tracey Caldwell

Sheffield was one of the few major cities not affected by the summer riots. While technology was used to stir up trouble in some parts of the country, Inspector Jayne Forrest of South Yorkshire Police says the calm in the city was due in part to police use of mobile social media.

South Yorkshire Police has since used the channels, mainly Facebook and Twitter, on Blackberrys to engage with protestors at the November public sector pensions strike and at a recent football derby. Forrest believes the engagement with people in the middle of crowds is a first for police operations in England. "I don't know of anybody else that has done it," she says.

The force first tried out mobile social media to engage with protestors at the Liberal Democrat party conference in March. "When the LibDems arranged their conference they weren't in power so we had a conference in a city hall and 5,000 protesters expected, which from a security aspect was really difficult to manage," Forrest says.

Social media engagement became a vital part of Operation Obelisk to police the LibDem conference. "It was three months hard work before the conference where I engaged with the protestors. I was able to negotiate with key nominals purely on Twitter via my Blackberry. A lot of the planning of the protest was done on social media, Facebook and Twitter. I was able to build my profile and engage with people through a means that previously we would never have thought of using," Forrest says.

The mobile aspect of the social media engagement was critical during the protest, as she makes clear in a description of one incident.

"We can all go on websites and identify nominals and contact them. What I was able to do was in live time. Somebody posted a picture of a flare on Twitter and put 'We are raging'. I was able to immediately respond and say 'Please don't light flares, they are dangerous and you could get arrested'. You could almost feel the temperature of the crowd coming down. Other people would then tweet 'Don't be lighting flares, it is not on, I have got children here'. So we went from 'We are raging' to 'Oops sorry!'. I was able to see that in live time."

Tensions were also defused by real time handling of rumours. "Then a rumour went round 'There are snipers on the roof of John Lewis', and I was able to say 'No they are not they are just police officers'. I could take pictures of the roof of John Lewis and show there were no snipers.

"Somebody else had put 'It is good here, there is a carnival atmosphere' and I was able to say 'Yes look' and upload a picture of a steel band." Only one arrest was made throughout the weekend.

Forrest believes it is important to make social media engagement personal. "We have the corporate Twitter account and then we have individual officers' accounts. I personally think the success of the events that we have run is because people know they are talking to a person and not a corporate account or somebody sat in an office. I very clearly identify myself as an individual and put my picture on the site."

Forrest draws a clear distinction between her use of social media for community engagement and the mining of social media for intelligence, a function of Special Branch.

"I am keen to differentiate," she says. "I am not trying to develop that intelligence, I am trying to engage with people and give them information about events. I like to keep those lines very clear."

She adds: "We are aware of misinformation, certainly as people get more used to the police occupying the social community. I wouldn't act on information that I received on a tweet and my role is very much information sharing. I don't have the time to sanitise the information that I get in so I would just pass it on to the relevant department."

Forrest extols the virtues of Twitter hashtags. "I do like the use of hashtags. We have introduced them at football events, so we have a hashtag for Sheffield Wednesday football club and that gets a lot of following as the football communities like to talk to each other about decisions in real time. We are now doing hashtags for particular events at the Arena and City Hall such as #thearticmonkeys."

Her plan is to have 2,500 officers trained in social media on their Blackberrys by the end of 2012. Police officers can access their email as well as social media, allowing them to carry out work on the beat that until recently they would need to go back to the station to do.

"There is a section of training on 'Be careful what you say. It is there in print and you can't unsay it', but generally the ethos of the training is you are all paid professionals, we trust that you won't put something unprofessional on there. It is important we don't overcomplicate it with 'Don't say this and don't say the other', because that starts to erode the engagement aspect of it," Forrest says.

For future mobile operations, she is evaluating the location capabilities of mobile devices and is looking to introduce more BlackBerry Playbooks into vehicles. It promises to make the mobile use of social media an important tool in the policing of the city.








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