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Why the mental health cop ban will serve to ‘discourage the others’

Why the mental health cop ban will serve to ‘discourage the others’

🕔20.Feb 2014

The combination of a press-friendly police commissioner with an enthusiasm for social media and a West Midlands police force where information is controlled through firm rules and procedures was always going to be an explosion waiting to happen.

And a week ago, the whole thing blew up when the force suspended the Twitter account of Inspector Michael Brown, aka @mentalhealthcop, who is a nationally regarded expert on the way police deal with (or don’t deal with) mental health issues when arresting and detaining suspects.

To show that this was being treated as a serious matter, WMP revealed that the suspension was approved by Assistant Chief Constable Garry Forsyth for an investigation to take place into alleged “misuse of a force Twitter account”. ACC Forsyth, by the way, is apparently responsible for ‘customer relations’, which is a new one on me.

Six days later, after a social media uproar, questions from MPs and some pretty bad publicity for West Midlands Police, Inspector Brown had his Twitter account reinstated as if nothing had happened and began to tweet his blog again.

ACC Forsyth is saying little about why he approved the suspension, other than to state that the investigation looked at “inappropriate use of direct messaging and social media”.

What we do know is that Brown has been given “informal advice” about his conduct, which is probably police-speak for a rocket up the backside and a warning that he’ll be back plodding the beat in the wilds of Willenhall in a trice if he steps out of line again.

What, though, did @mentalhealthcop do that he was not supposed to have done? We shall never know since ACC Forsyth has decided it would “not be fair or proportionate” to release further details of the investigation.

Theories differ as to the identity of the tweet too far. Some say Inspector Brown was too outspoken about the lack of resources to address mental health issues, which would hardly be surprising given the budget cuts forced on to the police by the Chancellor.

Another suggestion, promoted by Nick Cohen in the Spectator magazine, claims Inspector Brown was dismissive about a “street triage scheme” in which a nurse accompanies officers on patrol and decides whether to send a mentally ill person home, to hospital or to the cells.

On his blog, Brown wrote that ‘a nurse in a car with a cop’ may not be the best solution. Unfortunately, as he was tweeting his criticism, a film promoting the triage system appeared on BBC’s One Show, portraying WMP as pioneers. Brown tweeted that the triage system couldn’t succeed if the “police’s place of safety pathways aren’t working properly”.

Meanwhile, ACC Forsyth took to Twitter to welcome back @mentalhealthcop, adding that he was glad it is “back to business as usual” for Inspector Brown and his award-winning blog.

Except that it cannot be business as usual, surely?

This episode has raised questions about the role of police officers using Twitter as part of their jobs. As previously mentioned, Police and Crime Commissioner Bob Jones is a big fan of social media. He must be the most press-friendly PCC in the country, since he makes it a matter of principle never to turn down a request from a journalist for an interview.

One can only imagine the bemusement, and then frustration, when  it dawned on ACC Forsyth, and quite possibly the chief constable as well, that Bob Jones wasn’t at all happy about the suspension of Inspector Brown’s Twitter account and wasn’t afraid to say so.

Although the Commissioner made it abundantly clear that he couldn’t and wouldn’t interfere in the disciplinary process, he repeatedly stated that he wanted to see Brown’s blog up and running again. This, perhaps, is why the investigation into alleged “inappropriate” use of Twitter lasted only six days, which in terms of police disciplinary inquiries is lightning fast.

As a politician, Bob Jones recognises the value of “getting the message out there” quickly. And Twitter has revolutionised the ability of the police and other public organisations to communicate swiftly and effectively.

The question for the police and for councils, who are facing their own social media anxieties, is simple enough: how can we control the message? This is a tough question given the contrast between social media – where text can be half-way around the globe in a second – and the traditional approach to communications adopted by public bodies – avoid decision  making, get a press release rubber-stamped and signed off by as many people above you as you can find.

The straight answer in a world where social media continues to empower millions across the world is that you can’t really control anything, as much as you might wish to. The toothpaste, having been squeezed out of the tube, can’t be put back in.

The philosopher Sir Francis Bacon reportedly said “knowledge is power”, and his comment has been re-interpreted over the years as “information is power”. Bacon was writing 400 years ago, but the principle behind his remark is as sound today as it was in the 16th century.

Most police officers use Twitter to issue triumphant messages about having collared a burglar or prevented a robbery, which is fair enough. There are also many tweets warning people to lock up their property and be more security-aware, which is also to be expected. Higher ranking officers talk a lot on Twitter about the top-level meetings they attend to discuss important issues with ‘partner’ organisations.

What we have not yet seen much of is coppers at the coal face getting to grips on Twitter with budget cuts, forced redundancies, reorganisation and amalgamation of forces and the many other hot topics surrounding the way police forces are actually run.

Perhaps the temporary slapping down of Inspector Brown had a less than subtle motive. Could it have served as a cautionary warning to police officers to watch what they are tweeting because they in turn are being watched?

As Voltaire put it, ‘to encourage the others’. Or in this case, to discourage the others.

 

 

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