Belfast Telegraph

Why the PSNI should leave the jokes to the comedians and concentrate on our safety

Quips, gags and cute Valentine's Day messages have no place in policing, says Fionola Meredith

Did you hear about the mentally ill man found freezing, naked and covered in cuts, at the bottom of a 10-foot ditch? Absolutely hilarious story - or so the cops seemed to think. In a Facebook post, PSNI Bangor described the incident as an "unusual call that gave us a chuckle". For extra chortles, they then added the hashtags #fullmoon, #hideandstreak and #keepingpeopledecent.

Serious psychological disturbance - nothing funnier, right? Even better if the bloke in question hasn't managed to keep his clothes on.

The crass and juvenile tittering came to an abrupt end when the young man's mother pointed out, on the Nolan show, that her son could have died in that ditch.

She was also worried about the effect of the online mockery on his fragile state of mind. The message was removed from social media, the police duly apologised, and the Police Ombudsman was notified.

That's all very well, but the damage has been done - and it's far from the first time that the PSNI has blundered badly on social media.

Cops and computers - it's starting to look like a very bad combination.

Besides, isn't their priority supposed to be keeping the public safe, not composing hilarious hashtags and geezerish banter?

When images of a handsome police officer went viral last summer, after a police tweet about festival safety, the Bangor police (yes, them again) posted: "Instead of turning to a life of crime to meet Detective Superintendent Bobby Singleton which I have seen several ladies threaten. Why not join the PSNI and run into him in a chance meeting in the canteen or during an arrest at custody".

Boom boom, lads. It's the way you tell them.

Certain forces clearly love the lolz, and they are often keen to show us their softer side too. Newry and Mourne PSNI, who are prolific social media users, celebrated Valentine's Day this week with a picture of hearts and buns, and the rather embarrassing hashtag #CopsNeedLoveToo. Meanwhile, Cookstown PSNI has a cute knitted doll in uniform, known as Constable Cook of Cookstown, who pops up on their Facebook page from time to time, though I haven't seen him recently - perhaps he's gone undercover.

Sometimes the messages are just downright bizarre. When Prince died, officers in Lisburn and Castlereagh posted a picture of a road sign with a piece of PSNI apparel draped over it, so that the sign appeared to read Prince Road. Some members of the public quite reasonably asked whether the police didn't have better things to do than pay tribute to deceased rock stars by mucking around with street signs.

It's not so much the time taken to post on social media - though I do wonder how many hours some cops spend on it - but rather the tone of the messages that concerns me. The police are responsible for ensuring public safety and enforcing the law. That's their job, that's what they are there for.

We do not need to see the cuddly side of the cops, Valentine's Day or not. Social media has its uses in policing - appealing for witnesses to a road accident, say, or alerting people about a spate of burglaries in their area - but it shouldn't be a vehicle for whimsical musings, under the guise of valuable public outreach.

Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days, when policing was a matter of grim authority. It's still an enormously difficult, risky and challenging job. But neither do we want to see our law enforcers indulging in laddish banter or mawkish sentiment while they're supposed to be on duty.

If the PSNI insists on maintaining its extensive social media platform, it should at least have a coherent strategy, and offer proper training, rather than allowing random, off-the-cuff messages which are bound to lead to trouble. And it goes right to the top - Chief Constable George Hamilton could clearly do with a crash course in online etiquette after he wrote a late-night tweet telling a distressed officer to stop "wallowing in self pity", a remark for which he later apologised.

In its latest Facebook initiative, the PSNI has announced it will post Wild West-style pictures of suspects who fail to appear in court. PSNI Craigavon has even mocked up a poster of one of their own officers, Chief Inspector Jon Burrows, wanted for "theft of hair products", to help people get the idea.

Great craic, guys. But as I'm sure any serving officer could tell you, policing in Northern Ireland is far from a joke. Leave the gags to the comedians and stick to enforcing the law.

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