Halifax Regional Police say they want people to know they shouldn’t use Twitter, Facebook or any other social media communication to report a crime.
“We don’t want people to make the assumption that when they tweet something that it’s going to be acted upon,” said Const. Carol McIsaac.
People try to report crime through social media about three to four times a week, McIsaac said, and police would prefer if they called or stopped by a police station. (On average Halifax police respond to about 190 calls a day.)
McIsaac gave two main reasons more traditional approaches are preferred.
First, when people report a crime they often have to give the police personal or sensitive information, and police said if that’s done over social media they have no way to guarantee that information is secure.
“The methods of reporting that we presently have do ensure the security of the information, whereas with our social media sites, as we are all well aware, that security isn’t present,” said McIsaac.
Second, police also don’t monitor their social media accounts around the clock, which means they could miss an important message.
“It would be great if we could just take it and move on, it would be so much easier for them and for us,” McIsaac said. “But if there’s a chance that we miss a tweet then we wouldn’t want that person to assume because they tweeted it to us that we did act on it.”
As it stands, Halifax Regional Police do not investigate crime based on social media reports alone. If they get a social media message, police respond and ask the sender to call 911 or one of their non-emergency numbers.
The only exceptions are incidents involving theft, property damage or lost items. Those can be reported to police via an online form.
Only once police receive a message through one of those channels will they begin an investigation.
‘A very sensible discussion to have’
David Fraser, a privacy lawyer with McInnes Cooper, said he understands the police’s concern. However, Fraser doesn’t believe that should be enough to stop police from following up on information that comes in through Facebook or other apps.
“So if they have information that’s at least enough to start an inquiry they should probably do that, the same way that if you said it to a police officer that you bumped into on the street or if they overheard someone yell something in a public space,” said Fraser.
Many police departments across the country do not accept social media messages for reporting crime, according to Fraser. By not doing so he worries police may be preventing part of the population from contacting them.
He said some people don’t have the means to communicate by phone or to stop by a police station, so social media might be the only way to reach police.
“Down the road I think it’s a very sensible discussion to have, and to try to make sure that the police are able to communicate with the public in the way the public wants to communicate with them,” said Fraser.
That future seems a long way off for the Halifax Regional Police.
McIsaac said until police can be sure that information communicated over social media is safe and secure, they will not act on any reports of crime coming through it.
“To make something like that possible I think it would be quite a process so that’s not something that we’re even exploring right now,” she said.