Social Media, Police Culture and the Koh Tao Murders by Christopher G. Moore

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Two young Britons were killed less than two weeks ago on a beach in Koh Tao, a small island, Surat Thani province located in the South of Thailand. There is no need to set out the horrible details of the killing. It is sufficient to acknowledge that the double murder was the result of a brutal and vicious assault by one or more unknown persons. The young woman’s face was mutilated in the course of the attack that claimed her life. Both victims were found dead on the beach semi-nude.  Since the murder the Thai police have sought to apprehend the killer or killers. The process of investigation, from the handling of the crime scene to announcing possible suspects, has been closely followed by the local and international news.

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British tourists murdered on Koh Tao: David Miller, 24 and Hannah Witheridge 23

At best it can be said the investigation has been shambolic, with conflicting statements about motives, the alleged wearing of a bikini by the female victim, evidence of the murder weapon, identity of possible suspects, reports of sealing the island, mass testing of DNA, including old and young migrant women, and participation of foreign forensic experts to assist the local police.

Many others have reported on the professionalism and competence of the police conducting the investigation. What has been missing from the discussion is the role of the media, including social media in reporting the story. This essay touches the surfaces of what should be a comprehensive survey of contemporary efforts in many countries to devise new policies and guidelines governing police and social media. By social media, I am specifically referring to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. There are other platforms but these are the main ones most people currently think of when they come across the phrase social media.

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Beach, Koh Tao

It is unclear whether the Thai Royal Police force has a Police Social Media Protocols or Guidelines. From the handling of the Koh Tao murders, one might safely conclude there are no such guidelines for social media, or if there are such guidelines they have been so loosely applied as to be meaningless. These murders have revealed that the Thai police procedures, policies and guidelines are ripe for reform to bring them into the digital age.

International examples of Police Social Media Policies

This is a brief survey and only covers a small amount of the available resource material about current social media policies and practices, updates being called for to existing rules, and specific examples of policies that, if in place in Thailand, would have avoided a great deal of the problems the Thai police have found themselves confronting.

USA

In the United States, discussions are taking place as to formulating social media policy guidelines for the FBI. American experts have written about the need for new policies to take into account social media and view it as an opportunity to enhance their operational and investigative capabilities. There is also the danger of blending personal and working lives in a way that discredits the police. The need for a media policy that takes into account social media security and privacy that also define what can and cannot be shared on social media by police officers and staff.

Attention in US law enforcement has focused on using social media for tactical advantage in policing, with an emphasis on using social media as an investigative tool in law enforcement. The US Justice Department funded a study Social Media and Tactical Considerations for Law Enforcement looking at flash mobs, riots, and mass demonstrations. This is the other part of social media that enlarges the police footprint through the digital world. That potential of social media has already attracted the attention of law enforcement authorities in Thailand. It is another way to monitor the conduct of citizens online. The tendency has been to increase the reach of Big Brother into people’s lives through social media activity rather than restraining the scope of police power.

UK

An investigation launched in the UK into the misuse of social media by police is instructive as to the nature of the problem. The Guardian reported that hundreds of police officers are under investigation for breaching restrictions imposed on officers who use Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. In 828 reported cases over a five-year period, police officers were found to have made racist and threatening comments on Facebook and Twitter.

Another problem is the use of social media during working hours of a police officer. One police resigned over “‘excessive and inappropriate use of the internet during working hours’, in particular online auction sites, internet banking and social networking sites.”

The police will likely increase among their ranks officers and staff who may post on social media their comments, photos, gossip and speculations. Having more police on social media may also lead to a higher volume of careless, reckless, boastful, racist, sexists, or xenophobic content.  This type of communication would tarnishes the police and may jeopardize an investigation. In Thailand’s Koh Tao double murder case, there have been allegations of police and charitable organizations (who removed the bodies from the crime scene) of uploading graphic photographs of the murder victims. An independent Thai investigation ought to be commission and its mandate would include an audit of Thai police social media accounts from the date of the murders being reported.

The 2010 guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland are instructive on the nature of such guidelines, which include traditional and social media. Here are some examples of the 2010 Guidelines:

Article 4.25: Newspapers will wish to report deaths that have occurred in unusual circumstances. However, there are limits on what can be published and on the approaches that can be made to bereaved family and close friends. For instance, the Editors’ Code of Practice, overseen by the PCC, states that “in cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively” (Clause 5, i). The broadcasters’ codes have similar stipulations.

An important issue at a crime scene is the right of the press and others to take video or still photographs. Article 4.38 establishes a guideline for the police to follow:

  • There are no powers prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place. Therefore, members of the public and press should not be prevented from doing so.
  • We need to cooperate with the media and amateur photographers. They play a vital role as their images help us identify criminals.
  • We must acknowledge that citizen journalism is a feature of modern life and police officers are now photographed and filmed more than ever.
  • Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether for the casual tourist or professional is unacceptable and it undermines public confidence in the police service.
  • Once an image has been recorded, police can only seize the film or camera at the scene on the strictly limited grounds that it is suspected to contain evidence of a crime. Once the photographer has left the scene, police can only seize images with a court order. In the case of the media, the usual practice is to apply for a court order under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act for production of the photograph or film footage.

The issues of social media and the police forces are specifically addressed in Article 13, which covers not just operational offices but staff, police IT specialists and possibly commercial partners. As the Guidelines indicate, the rise of social media is a ‘growth area’ and each force is to “determine the level and extent of police use of digital technology to support community engagement.”

The Dorset Police work under a set of Media Relations Guidelines that is also instructive on how to co-ordinate efforts into the investigation of a murder. One of the first acts is to designate a Senior Investigating Officer (SIO). A media relations officer is appointed at an early stage of the investigation who works with the SIO on statement to be released to the press and media strategy. And all statements to the media go through the Media Relations Office after prior consultation with the SIO.

Part of the problem in the Koh Tao murder case is the chorus of voices coming from policemen. This added to the confusion surrounding the investigation. Once a murder has occurred, the police can release information about the location, time and date of report, gender of victim and scale of the inquiry. But no details should be released that would allow the next of kin to find out through the media that a loved one was killed prior to be notified first by the police.

The traditional and social media have reported multiple statements from many police sources as to the identity of possible suspects in the Koh Tao murders.

“The Dorset Media Guidelines limit this speculation. Never confirm to the media that someone that they name is helping police with their enquiries, is under investigation or has been arrested. Dorset Police does not confirm the identity of anyone who may, or may not, be the subject of a criminal investigation and who has not been charged. It is the journalist’s risk and not that of Dorset Police if they choose to broadcast or publish information that cannot be confirmed by the Force.

“Dorset Police cannot comment on speculation related to an on-going criminal investigation because of the risk of prejudicing that investigation.”

India

One question is who should be responsible for drafting Social Media Guidelines for the Thai police? In India, the Supreme Court is drafting such guidelines. In Thailand, including human rights groups, the law association, judges, the police along with foreign experts would be a good start to reaching a consensus as to what protocols or guidelines are appropriate for Thailand’s police force.

Australia

In New South Wales, the police also work under a set of media policy guidelines dated May 2013. The NSW police force has a Police Force Media Unit, with a mandate to make media release, hold news conferences, to managing inquires from the media. In other words, the Australian police have institutionalized as a unit within the police force, a unit responsible for media management and co-ordination, and training of police officers in media relations. The police media unit is the exclusive outlet, and this has the advantage of closing down various police officers talking directly to the media about a case.

In the NSW police force:

“Staff must not contact the media in their capacity as Police Force employees to make any comment about any incident, police policy or procedure without prior authorisation. This includes contacting talk-back radio, commenting on social media platforms, and submitting letters or emails to the editor.”

Had such a policy been in place, the free for all atmosphere surrounding the Koh Tao murder would not have taken place.

Here’s a list of information from the NSW Media policy guidelines as to what should never be released by the police. Ask yourself how many of these restrictions, if in place in Thailand, would have been breached in the Koh Tao murder case. Or indeed in many high profile criminal cases in Thailand.

“Never release information that:

  • Hinders or jeopardises an investigation
  • States or implies that a particular crime has been committed (eg:“the victim was murdered with a blunt instrument…”)
  • Speculates on the cause of a death
  • Goes beyond broad statements of facts to reveal details of evidence which may later be disputed by an alleged offender
  • Prejudices a trial
  • Reveals distinguishing methodology used by criminals (beware ‘copycat’ criminals) or investigating police
  • Details or speculates about a motive or absence of motive
  • Details amounts of stolen money
  • Goes beyond broad statements of facts to detail forensic or other examinations or identification ‘line-ups’”

Canada

Social Media and the police are widely discussed in Canada. A YouTube video provides an inside look on the use of Google+ by the Toronto Police. Media experts in the police department engage and inform the public through social media. This video approaches social media not unlike the report commissioned by the US Justice Department discussed above. The number of booksat the Canadian Police College published on the subject of intelligence analysis and data mining in the digital world gives an idea of how the new technology has shaped attitudes about policing, investigative techniques, and police training.

Canada does have a lesson for other countries. Social media policy guidelines can’t be formulated or successfully implemented without first identifying the main elements of police culture and management. Here are seven core values identified in a report titled Rethinking Police Governance, Culture & Management Prepared for the Task Force on Governance and Cultural Change in the RCMP, Public Safety Canada: solidarity, authoritarianism, suspicion, conservative, prejudicial, cynicism, and blue collar.

Summary

The Koh Tao murder case opens the door to an examination of ways to reform the Thai police force. The narrow goal would be to write policy guidelines and make organizational and management changes concerning police and media relations. The broader goal would be to use the experience of Koh Tao as the basis to rethink police governance, culture and management. To be realistic the culture of the police force mirrors its social media policy. It would be difficult to sustain to adopt the police social media policy from another country without alterations to the local culture of policing. Depending on the police culture, it may be very difficult to import a foreign social media model for policing without also importing the foreign police culture.

The Thai police culture includes reenactments by suspects with a seminar-sized group of uniformed police officers photographed looking on. The Thai culture is to one of extending face to the group of officers positioned by rank. It is difficult to fit a Social Media Police Unit into that Thai police cultural picture. But ignoring this opportunity to move ahead will certainly result in other Koh Tao cases emerging again and again.

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