(U.K.) Chief constables across the region are warning of being swamped by a rising tide of complaints of online harassment and abuse, with South Yorkshire Police alone recording a huge leap to 9,500 reports last year.
With resources increasingly strained and severe cuts being made across all four Yorkshire police forces, it marks an admission for the first time that officers will not be able to fully investigate the bulk of reports of offences on social media sites which barely existed a few years ago.
The warning comes as the Yorkshire Post today begins a three-day investigation into the online crime epidemic engulfing the country, which police forces admit they are struggling to keep a handle on. The Leeds MP Stuart Andrew, who lost a childhood friend to suicide after serious bullying, is also today calling for an urgent parliamentary debate on monitoring the use of the internet.
David Crompton, the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police which investigated accountant Paul Chambers over a supposedly “menacing” tweet to blow up Doncaster Airport that led to him being cleared this summer in the High Court, said the rising demand has prompted the force to look again at the way it responds to social media. Mr Crompton stressed serious complaints would always be investigated fully, though in many cases officers should now just be “giving advice” to victims in spite of national guidelines which say police will assist with any prosecution.
“This is one of the biggest changes that we have seen,” Mr Crompton added. “If you go back 10 years, hardly any of these 9,500 calls about what is being said on social media would have been rung through to the police at all. “When there is such rising demand we have to make a distinction between some of the really serious abuse which can be extremely upsetting. By the same token, a large chunk of this could just be the equivalent of a few remarks made from one person to another in a pub. But because it is in the written form, people take exception to it. I am not waiting for national guidance, we are more interested in what we ourselves need to do in South Yorkshire. There is ultimately going to be less resources out there and greater priorities for us in terms of real antisocial behaviour on the streets or more traditional crimes being committed.
“I am not going to say that 9,500 calls is the straw that breaks the camel’s back in any way, but it does raise the question of us looking at the range of things we are trying to do and ask what our bigger priorities.”
There are currently more than 10 million Twitter users in the UK, while around 30 million are believed to be on Facebook. The surge in activity has led to officers complaining of being asked to police the “digital space” despite a reluctance in the courts to convict. A log of all crimes and hate incidents reported to Humberside Police regarding Facebook and Twitter over the past three years, which has been obtained by the Yorkshire Post, reveals that only a quarter of investigations resulted in a charge.
Offenders behind alleged cases such as fraud, racially aggravated harassment, perverting the course of justice and sexual offences have all gone undetected. Mr Crompton’s comments have been echoed by Tim Madgwick, the acting chief constable of North Yorkshire Police.
“We have got to strike the balance because we could become swamped very easily with complaints,” Mr Madgwick said. “What becomes a policing investigation for me would be the more serious complaints where clearly there is ongoing harassment or racism. Where it is more about just inappropriate use of language and more like an argument online, I don’t think that is the place for the police to interfere. I liken it to the change of tolerance in schools – children always have fights as far as I can remember but at a certain level it needs to be dealt with by the police, and quite rightly. “But we haven’t got an infinite pot, we have got a reducing pot.”
(NOTE: In the U.S.A. IC3 of the FBI reports a minimum 7-9 year backlog of genuine complaints to their internet reporting site.)