Social media is now more important than ever to hold police accountable

Police surround protesters on Clapham Common bandstand during the vigil for Sarah Everard

On 9 April, UK police news website Police Oracle reported that a senior Metropolitan Police officer is calling for an end to “trial by social media”. To achieve this, he is calling for “government and force leaders to tackle social media firms”. But recent history has shown why social media is an important tool for holding police accountable.

Acting appropriately

Ken Marsh, head of the Metropolitan Police Federation, told Police Oracle that officers “shouldn’t be subjected” to trial by social media for “simply doing their job”. The statement came after the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) found officers from the Met’s Territorial Support Group “acted appropriately” during a traffic stop in May 2020.

The police targeted actor and rapper Ryan Caloço as he drove home from an interview about police racial profiling:

And footage of the incident was widely viewed on social media.

Police Oracle reported this led Marsh to say that the public response and subsequent IOPC conclusion “was another case that had wasted officer time and public money”. And as a result, the State needs to intervene by tackling social media firms.

Importance of social media

Recent history, however, has provided evidence for the importance of social media in holding police accountable. In October 2019, the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) highlighted a report that said police wanted to withhold bodycam footage because it revealed officers acting inappropriately:

In response to Marsh’s statement, Netpol coordinator Kevin Blowe told the Morning Star that videos showing police actions have:

often helped to challenge officers’ misleading version of events and… led to the disciplining of violent officers.

Netpol argues that, in the face of the enormous power that officers wield, filming the police is one of the few effective ways of ever successfully holding them to account.

The Guardian said a leaked Scotland Yard report based on 95 incidents involving the Met showed:

incidents captured by cameras worn on officers’ bodies, recorded examples of “poor communication, a lack of patience, [and] a lack of de-escalation before use of force is introduced”.

The memo also states that force used by officers on members of the public could probably have been avoided in some instances.

Police violence

Meanwhile, one particularly harrowing example of social media exposing officer actions is a video by Tik Tok user @tj_quinn. It shows officers from West Midlands Police allegedly using a dog to attack a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) person in 2017:

A jury found the dog handling officer not guilty due to “lack of evidence”.

And more recent examples emerged from the Met’s policing of the Sarah Everard vigil. Video shared on social media of gratuitous and aggressive actions by officers at an otherwise calm gathering led to greater public awareness of the need for nationwide #KillTheBill protests to challenge the draconian Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB)

Learning from the French

Social media has become an essential tool for otherwise ‘voiceless’ members of the public to hold those with power accountable. And as the response to the Everard vigil shows, it is also an important tool in fighting for people’s rights.

In October 2020, the French government proposed the Global Security Law. Article 24 of this law would make it illegal to “disseminate” images that identified officers engaged in police operations. Its stated intention was to prevent reprisals against police. The article was widely criticised, with journalists particularly concerned that it would hamper legitimate press work. And it led to protests and street confrontations with police across France, which ultimately led to a ‘total rewrite’ of Article 24.

By controlling the spread of information through social media, police will have greater control over their public narrative. That’s essential for the police to maintain its position of power. And if there’s a push to enact that in UK law then we need to learn from our comrades in France.

Main image via Lots of Detail/YouTube