IOPC warns officers about inappropriate social media use

Published: 23 Apr 2021

Following a number of investigations into police officers posting or sharing offensive, material via social media, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) today warned that such behaviour from serving police officers is unacceptable, and that individuals could face investigation for misconduct.

IOPC Director General, Michael Lockwood, said a snapshot of investigations between 2018 and 2020, showed a number of examples of officers sharing offensive and inappropriate content on social media.

“From racist, sexist, and other discriminatory comments to photographing crime scenes and using social media to contact victims of crime for sexual activity, it is concerning that a small number of police officers appear to think that this is acceptable behaviour.

“In the most serious examples we have seen grossly offensive images and messages which the public would be appalled by. Making discriminatory remarks, and the sharing of graphic and offensive memes and images, is unacceptable under any circumstances.”

“Officers can face serious disciplinary or even criminal consequences if they do not uphold the standards of professional behaviour,” he said.

Mr Lockwood has written to the National Police Chiefs Council, asking them to remind forces and officers of their obligations under the police Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Behaviour.

“We have a collective responsibility to challenge and root out this type of culture and behaviour in policing. Many forces take a forthright stance on these issues and have robust policies on use of social media, in line with the Code of Ethics.

“The vast majority of police officers are appalled by this kind of activity and I am encouraged that these matters have often come to light because police officers called out their colleagues and reported their concerns as they are duty bound to do. A whole police force can be judged by the community on one officer’s inappropriate posting which significantly damages public confidence and brings the police into disrepute.”

A snapshot of cases since the IOPC’s establishment in 2018 include:

  • In December 2020, several Metropolitan Police Service officers received final written warnings for gross misconduct after sharing text messages which contained offensive references to people with disabilities and jokes about rape, paedophilia, racism, and homophobia.
  • In August 2018, following an IOPC investigation, an independent panel concluded a South Wales police officer had a case for gross misconduct, with a sanction of a final written warning. The officer resigned prior to the hearing taking place. A member of the public reported a number of potentially offensive Facebook posts which they felt breached the rules of SWP in relation to social media.
  • A police officer resigned from Cheshire Constabulary after our investigation, which concluded in November 2019, found they had contacted, via social media, three members of the public whom they had met during the course of their policing duties and proceeded to pursue a personal relationship with each of them.
  • In May 2020, an IOPC investigation saw a misconduct hearing find that a Warwickshire PCSO would have been dismissed for gross misconduct had he not already resigned. The officer made inappropriate contact via social media with a burglary victim after he had visited her home to provide crime prevention advice. The incident came to light after the victim reported the conduct to the force’s professional standards department.
  • In August 2020, a Kent police officer who described searching women as 'good fun', mocked a dementia sufferer and posted crime scene photos on WhatsApp over eight months was sacked following a force investigation. The officer’s messages were discovered when another member of the chat group had his phone searched as part of a separate criminal investigation.

IOPC investigations continue into a number of inappropriate images and/or messages shared on social media.

The College of Policing’s Code of Ethics provides guidance on use of social media sets out that officers must:

  • use social media responsibly and safely
  • ensure that nothing you publish online can reasonably be perceived by the public or your policing colleagues to be discriminatory, abusive, oppressive, harassing, bullying, victimising, offensive or otherwise incompatible with policing principle
  • not publish online or elsewhere, or offer for publication, any material that might
    undermine your own reputation or that of the policing profession or might run the risk of damaging public confidence in the police service.

  • Discrimination