Mixed police responses to social media use

DHPOL, April 2017

Police are often approached when citizens feel that the worst is coming to the worst, and that they are urgently in need of help and support. However, often in such circumstances citizens are not sure which service they actually require, and which number to call. That is why they tend to dial the emergency number, 110 in Germany. This impedes effective police work because more often than not the reason for the call does not address an emergency situation but an everyday problem or crisis, such as ‘my dog has run away’. Police in the German Capital Berlin estimate that at least 20% of 110 calls are not emergencies. Aided by a #NoNotruf (no emergency call) campaign Berlin Police have tried to address this issue, and have posted examples of the most absurd calls to create awareness of the 110 abuse (e.g.: “It’s been raining – can you give me a lift to the supermarket?” or “Do you know the visiting hours at the Saint Mary’s hospital?”). Additionally, the social media team of Berlin Police have responded to citizens questions as to which police service to contact when specific problems arise, in cases where help or assistance is requested but which do not qualify as emergency situations.

In a wider context, the police elsewhere have investigated how far the pressure on police emergency phones can be relieved, and how to simultaneously enhance police services for citizens’ concerns, worries, and requests. The cities of Frankfurt (Main), Hamburg, and Bonn have made available apps that provide maps with overviews of current security/traffic situations as well as police press releases. At the same time citizens can post messages. This is meant to help citizens to avoid risks or dangerous city areas and increase their feeling of safety, while a platform is supplied where people can raise their issues and share their worries and concerns.

Hesse State Criminal Police have critically commented upon such social media applications because the specific app is not state/police owned and organized. The departments warns that if police do not participate the risk of vigilante and fear-raising postings and fake reports may by far outweigh the advantages of such technologies. Original police responsibilities and tasks could be affected by trivial demands that block necessary and potentially life-saving or police activities or rapid response to crime/accidents. The app provider emphasizes positive neighbourhood effects but the danger of false alarms and unwarranted exaggerated citizens’ actions remains, if the validity of citizens’ postings /messages cannot be validated by police. INSPEC2T apps are entirely in the hands of law enforcement agencies, so that only information from police sources is being fed into the system. Incoming citizens’ reports are checked and omitted in cases where they do not represent the factual situation/events. With this service citizens can communicate with law enforcement agencies regarding neighbourhood issues (at the core of community policing) and receive advice, help or assistance without blocking police emergency services.