ON Thursday, Kingston Police posted an appeal post on their Facebook Page. They were looking for information on a woman who they said was suspected of being involved in burglaries in the area.
Public appeals for information by the police are common, and can be a useful tool in tackling crime and locating people of interest.
However, this post was not of the usual tone and content you would expect from a police force. When I first saw it shared on my Facebook page, I had to go and check it was actually genuine.
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The post was styled as a tongue-in-cheek open letter, joking that the suspect was ignoring their calls and texts, and had even turned down their friend request. It mentioned what a friendly bunch they were, and that they could even pick her up if she wanted.
The post was clearly written with the intention of going viral. Kingston Police themselves warned the woman featured that it would be shared “thousands of times”.
The way the police use social media is evolving. We are in uncharted territory in terms of the wider ramifications that ensuring a suspect “goes viral” can have.
The police have a duty of care and an obligation to treat suspects fairly and equally. Social media can be a brutal beast. Regardless of whether the woman in question has committed the crime she is suspected of, and is charged and convicted – her treatment has not been fair. It certainly hasn’t been equal. On their Facebook Page, Kingston Police have a “most wanted” gallery which features suspects who are wanted for, amongst other things, burglary. Yet only their names, DOB and offence is listed. No banter. No oh-so-hilarious open letter. No content that will garner a viral public reaction and thousands of shares. Indeed, these wanted (men), some of whom have been charged and not shown up at court – only have a handful of shares of their mugshots.
This isn’t about parity. I no more want to see humiliating, click-bait treatment for men than I do for this woman. But the fact remains that Kingston Police, for whatever reason, have chosen to treat this woman differently.
In 24 hours, the post has been shared nearly 100,000 times. The story has been reported on Sky News and ITV – not because she is the UK’s most wanted or dangerous criminal, but because of the jokey nature of the appeal.
The original post has attracted some 13,000 comments. Many are derogatory, misogynistic, and abusive. People have called her “skanky coward’’, “junkie scum”, “parasite” as well as the usual list of slurs used to demean women (“whore”, “slag” etc). As well as this unpleasantness, there is also a worrying number of people calling for violence. These include: “When you catch her, could you chop her hands off please?” and “time to start chopping the fingers off thieves”.
One suggests to Kingston Police that the discussion they have with her needs to be “heated” and involve “coshes, Tasers, baseballs bats, whips and a bit of stretching before taking her to the Thames and putting her in a pair of concrete boots”.
This is the obvious problem with using social media as a policing tool, in the way that Kingston Police have. Their own Facebook page becomes a cesspit of violent fantasies and threats, which they don’t have the resources to deal with.
While the threats on the post have been left uncommented upon by Kingston Police, other comments praising the “banter” were replied to. On one, they replied with “DCI Banta McBantface”.
This post is not the equivalent of a modern-day wanted poster, as some have suggested. Nor is it anything like the appeals for information that we see on Crimewatch. It is an irresponsible use of social media, with foreseeable and very real-life consequences. While the majority of suspects and criminals can expect to be treated fairly, this woman has not been. Should she be found guilty of a crime, any future rehabilitation has been put at risk by virtue of this viral post, which will exist on the internet forever. Not to mention the likely impact on her family, and any children she may have.
The police do a difficult, dangerous job in the face of shrinking budgets and increasing pressure. They put their lives on the line, daily, to keep us safe. For that, we should be grateful. However, we should also be wary of any move towards online shaming by the police. Of encouraging armchair detectives and mob justice. The comments on the viral post are full of people saying the woman in question doesn’t have the right not to be humiliated. That her dignity doesn’t matter. That may be the sad reality of online discourse – but it isn’t something the police should take part in.
We may be in the age of social media, of creating content and brand identity; but our police should stay at arm’s length from this.
We need to be confident that they will treat all members of the public with fairness and dignity. They must take care to avoid the unintended consequences of singling out one individual for such a modern, cruel and unusual form of punishment.