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Caught red-handed: UK cops, PCSOs, specials behaving badly… on social media

No Mr Fuzz, don't ask a crime victim to be your pal on Facebook

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In the past five years a surprisingly small number of police employees in England and Wales have been sacked, retired early or forced to resign in connection with serious cockups using social media.

A silly season Freedom of Information trawl* of cop shops carried out by the Press Association and reported by the BBC found 828 cases involving police officers, community support officers and special constables misusing Facebook and Twitter.

Across England and Wales, 74 individuals (or nine per cent of the cases revealed by the FOI request) were kicked out of the police force for inappropriate social media conduct between January 2009 and February this year.

In around 14 per cent of the cases reported, no further action was taken against employees who were found to have misbehaved online.

Other cases were dealt with on a discretionary basis, with advice being dished out to individuals who committed gaffes on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Racist and threatening comments posted online were among the poor behaviour flagged up by forces responding to the request.

Supposedly lonely police employees were found, in some instances, to have asked crime victims to become their "friends" on Facebook.

According to the PA, a Gwent cop was given a written warning after he "inappropriately" asked a woman he had visited at her home to connect with him on the free content ad network.

Elsewhere, a community support officer with Devon and Cornwall Police who posed with weapons on Facebook was slapped with a final written warning from the force.

A number of the 209,362 police staff throughout England and Wales were admonished for slagging off their employer on social media.

And two special constables were told to quit their voluntary jobs after being caught in a "compromising position" in a picture posted online.

The College of Policing issued a fresh code of ethics, which included a section on social media, last month.

"The vast majority of police officers and staff uphold these high standards and in many cases are responsible for challenging and reporting colleagues who act improperly or unlawfully. Where people working in policing have undermined their own reputation or that of the wider service, they must face appropriate action," said Chief Constable Alex Marshall.

"These figures include relatively minor matters, which can be dealt with by management advice, through to cases of misconduct which, quite rightly have resulted in officers and staff losing their jobs. There is no place in policing for officers who abuse the trust placed in us by the public."

The code (PDF, page 19) states that cops have to use social media "responsibly and safely". It adds:

Ensure that nothing you publish online can reasonably be perceived by the public or your policing colleagues to be discriminatory, abusive, oppressive, harassing, bullying, victimising, offensive or otherwise incompatible with policing principles.

The code also warns police staff not to publish material on the interwebs that might undermine their reputation or that of the fuzz profession. ®

* The PA regularly submits such requests during quiet news periods. The latest figures overlap with a previous FOI request revealed by the news wire at the end of 2011.

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