Chief Constable Alex Marshall, Head of the College of Policing, said the number of crimes arising from social media represented “a real problem”. He said the police and public were still trying to understand when online insults crossed over into becoming a criminal act.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Law in Action:
“As people have moved their shopping online and their communications online, they’ve also moved their insults, their abuse and their threats online, so I see that it won’t be long before pretty much every investigation that the police conduct will have an online element to it.
“It’s a real problem for people working on the front line of policing, and they deal with this every day.
“So in a typical day where perhaps they deal with a dozen calls, they might expect that at least half of them, whether around antisocial behaviour or abuse or threats of assault may well relate to social media, Facebook, Twitter or other forms.”
A number of front-line police officers from all over England and Wales who were spoken to by the BBC agreed with Mr Marshall’s assertion that a significant number of the reports they were asked to respond to were now related to social media, including threats to kill, bullying and harassment.
Changes Over the Years
Det Con Roger Pegram, from Greater Manchester Police, said the way offences were committed had changed a lot since he joined the force 14 years ago.
“These are traditional offences…
“You don’t need to actually front someone up face-to-face in the street to threaten them.
“This can all be done from the comfort of your own home, a coffee shop with wi-fi, and these people can commit crime anywhere to anybody.”
One officer, who did not wish to be named, said while there were serious issues worthy of further investigation, many reported incidents would not have been considered crimes in the era before social media.
He said: “A lot of the time… it’s that whole attitude of, ‘I don’t know what to do, I’ll call the police, they’ll sort it out for me.’
“It should be a case of let’s be sensible, let’s not be friends with that person on Facebook, perhaps contact Facebook first or don’t use Facebook. It’s common-sense stuff.”
Mr Marshall agreed and said:
“People throughout history have shouted abuse at each other and had disagreements and arguments and possibly said things that they regret later and the police have never investigated every disagreement between everyone.
“So we have to be careful here that there’s a line that needs to be drawn and if something is serious and it’s a crime and someone is genuinely threatened or in the case of domestic abuse – maybe they’re being coerced and treated deliberately in this way as a sort of punishment by a partner – that’s a serious issue that we need to take on.”
Mr Marshall went on to comment that a further combination of police training, public education and enforcement by social media companies was required to deal with the issue. Although the guidance from the Department of Public Prosecutions was a “good starting point”, Mr Marshall said, 6,000 officers were being trained over the next few months by the College of Policing to make decisions about when a complaint suggested a pattern of behaviour that required further investigation.
At present online crimes are recorded under traditional headings such as harassment or threats to kill and not as a online crime, so each report is required to be read individually to ascertain if the crime originated initially through social media. The College of Policing is currently carrying out research to identify the numbers of crimes actually originate on social media and expects the results in the next couple of months.