At 10am on 1 December, Essex police marked the beginning of advent with a tweet. “Our first wanted person in the advent calendar series is Tiras Downie, 38”, it reads. “He’s wanted on suspicion of breaching a court order and has links to Wandsworth & Ipswich.” Accompanying the tweet is Downie’s straight-faced mugshot, framed by a snowflake-emblazoned border and complete with glittery gold bauble marking this as “1” in the force’s social media advent calendar.
This is just the latest in what appears to be a concerted strategy by police forces across the country. Over the past few years social media users have become used to jarringly colloquial posts including adverts for “all expenses paid overnight accommodation” in jail cells, and roll-calls of arrests. “Loddy & lassie huckled for shoplifting washing powder! Bold move. Comfort in 2 in 1. #RelationshipGoals #DateNichtOnUs #AwStopIt” tweeted Levenmouth police in September.
In one post, now deleted, which received considerable criticism in January, Kingston police tweeted a mugshot of a woman named Tracey Dyke who was suspected of burglary. “We have a slight suspicion that you may be blanking us #Awkward” read the letter, which used a sad-face emoji to admonish Dyke for “not accepting a friend request” and signed off with: “Looking forward to seeing you soon and happy new year. TTFN.”
It makes sense for the police to embrace social media as a means of raising awareness, collecting information and updating those they serve on their work. This approach, though, seems more interested in humiliation and entertainment than the values of professionalism and respect that the criminal justice system ought to represent.
These posts work primarily to divide the public into the good, upstanding citizens who side with police, and the gormless, worthless criminals – an approach that has more in common with medieval public shaming than a compassionate, humane approach to crime and justice. For the police to maintain their authority over the public these dividing lines are politically expedient – but they are also cruel. If 19th-century courts had “mob justice by sneering Facebook post” available to them, it would have been up there with the stocks and bridles. Medieval judges, though, at least doled out such punishments upon conviction: in many cases, the police’s social media posts refer to citizens simply suspected or accused of a crime.
People commit crimes for many reasons, almost none of which are because they are an evil or stupid person. Those singled out for the social media treatment are often involved with the petty crime associated with poverty and other vulnerabilities: small-scale theft, shoplifting, minor drug offences. Our criminal justice system is, in places, changing to recognise this, with some police forces embracing initiatives such as restorative justice and community-based approaches. But the mugshots of a petty criminal splashed on your phone screen doesn’t allow for any kind of nuanced discussion. And such space is never devoted to the positive ways in which those who have offended can turn their lives around, given the necessary respect and support.
For black and immigrant communities who have seen those like them disproportionately arrested or mistreated, their relationship with the police is already complex enough. The outcome of this social media strategy will only be greater division between vulnerable, desperate people and those who are privileged enough not to have been affected, and therefore able to laugh along with the police. Crime would be better tackled through community cohesion and the realisation that all people are worthy of being treated with basic humanity.
Regardless of your views on the police, their position as a key public service demands professionalism and respect for the citizens they serve. It’s a basic requirement. If the principles underpinning criminal justice – innocent until proven guilty, rehabilitation over retribution – don’t make for catchy hashtags, then that’s a sacrifice the police should be willing to make in upholding a fair and decent society.