At least half of calls passed to frontline police officers originate with complaints about social media. The head of the police college Chief Constable Alex Marshall told the BBC the level of complaints was a “real problem”.
He said the it was particularly acute with officers who specialise in low-level offences. There are around 6000 officers currently being trained to deal with online offences.
Marshall told BBC Radio 4’s Law in Action: “As people have moved their shopping online and their communications online, they’ve also moved their insults, their abuse and their threats online, so I see that it won’t be long before pretty much every investigation that the police conduct will have an online element to it.
“It’s a real problem for people working on the front line of policing, and they deal with this every day.
“So in a typical day where perhaps they deal with a dozen calls, they might expect that at least half of them, whether around antisocial behaviour or abuse or threats of assault may well relate to social media, Facebook, Twitter or other forms.”
Marshall explained that the police were still trying to understand when insults online become criminal acts. So far there have been criticisms of police for arresting people who have issued threats online.
This included the famous case of Paul Chambers, who in January 2010, worried that snow would stop him catching a flight to visit his girlfriend, tweeted: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your (expletive) together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high.”
Within days he had been visited by anti-terror police and then spend months fighting allegations that he had threatened an attack. In the end he was found not guilty of committing any crime but not before his life had been turned upside down due to the allegations.
Officers across the country agreed that they do have a significant challenge in dealing with social networking sites. Roger Pegram, from Greater Manchester Police, said the way offences were committed had changed in recent years.
“These are traditional offences,” he said. “You don’t need to actually front someone up face-to-face in the street to threaten them. This can all be done from the comfort of your own home, a coffee shop with wi-fi, and these people can commit crime anywhere to anybody.”
Chief Constable Marshall said the police: “couldn’t possibly deal with every bit of nonsense and disagreement that occurs in social media.
“People throughout history have shouted abuse at each other and had disagreements and arguments and possibly said things that they regret later and the police have never investigated every disagreement between everyone.
“So we have to be careful here that there’s a line that needs to be drawn and if something is serious and it’s a crime and someone is genuinely threatened or in the case of domestic abuse – maybe they’re being coerced and treated deliberately in this way as a sort of punishment by a partner – that’s a serious issue that we need to take on.”
There are now calls for changes in the law that clarify the situation and defend civil liberties. Many campaigners are concerned that a whole raft of essentially law abiding citizens are now being criminalised because of ill thought through comments.
The news that officers are being weighed down with social media cases comes at a time when the police numbers are falling. Breitbart London reported earlier this month that 10,000 frontline police officers had been cut in recent years and replaced with cardboard cut outs.
There will now be worries that this additional workload will put extra time pressure officers and put public safety at risk as resources are diverted from more serious crimes.