Does a digital society need digital police?
Why police forces should strive for a more visible presence online is discussed in a recent article by Dr Petra Saskia Bayerl, and Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger, criminologist at the Institute of Police Science (IfP) of the Fachhochschule der Polizei des Landes Brandenburg. Dr Bayerl is associate professor of Technology and Organisational Behaviour at RSM and Co-Director of CESAM.
Is the internet a 'lawless space'?
Recent studies have looked at dark figures for crime (those that are unreported or undiscovered) and compared numbers of unreported crimes in real life against the number in the online or digital space. They suggest only up to a tenth of crimes committed in real life are reported to the authorities; that is, for crimes committed offline, the ratio of reported:unreported crimes is between 1:10 to 1:20 (Kunz & Singelnstein, 2016). In contrast, the ratio of reported:unreported crimes in the digital space is as high as 1:300 (Rüdiger, 2018a).
The stark contrast in numbers suggests that online offenders are considerably less likely to be prosecuted than offenders committing crimes offline. While the internet is by no means a lawless environment in the theoretical sense, it still seems to be an environment that lacks effective criminal prosecution, and represents an ‘anomic space’ according to Durkheim – a place where there is breakdown or absence of social norms.
This is problematic in itself, as it means that a high number of online offences remain unpunished. Even more problematic in our eyes is a secondary effect; namely a the potential for a cycle of self-reinforcement. Leaving online crimes unchallenged – especially those that are highly visible for the public such as hate-speech, insults or fake news – can lower inhibition thresholds, i.e., reduce the normative social control in the community of online users. Rüdiger previously framed this phenomenon in the concept of the 'broken web hypothesis', parallel to the 'broken window theory' developed by Wilson and Kelling (1982) for city neighbourhoods. Rüdiger argues that the more crimes are committed visibly online without being (visibly) punished, the lower the threshold for others to commit infringements, including crimes, against social norms, (Rüdiger, 2018b).
As executive arm of the state, police forces are crucial in visibly enforcing social norms and catching offenders. At present, however, this function is fulfilled only in a very limited way in the online world. Taking Germany as example, we calculated that of the approximately 311,000 police officers in Germany, only about 0.6% are visibly active on the internet. Dutch and British police forces have developed a more visible presence; for example approximately 5.23% of Dutch officers are active on social media.
Still, the question remains whether or not this visible online presence of police forces is sufficient – not only in terms of total numbers, but also with respect to their presence on the types of channels and platforms. In Germany, for example, 34 million citizens including children are active online gamers, often daily. Crimes in such online game environments are not uncommon. They range from virtual thefts to cyber-bullying to grooming and child sexual exploitation. Yet, we are not aware of any visible policing efforts in gaming environments.
Reasons for the limited visible presence of police forces online
One reason of a low online police presence may be the “preventive effect of not-knowing” (H. Popitz), according to which a constitutional democracy can only function if at least some crimes remain unrecorded – otherwise the legal and executive systems would simply become overwhelmed. In some countries, such as Germany, the principle of mandatory investigation of offences (Legalitätsprinzip) can be a second limiting factor to a broader police presence online. This principle states that police officers commit an offence if they fail to investigate any crime that comes to their attention, no matter the severity of the offence. As well as being a question of resources, this obligation may also be a political issue, as a stronger presence of police officers online would most likely also lead to more offences that need investigation and prosecution. Hence, crime statistics would likely rise, while the number of solved crimes might reduce; hardly a very popular development. A third, crucial reason in our eyes is the lack of a societal debate about the role and function of national police forces in a globally organised digital space. More crimes very often lead to calls for more 'blue on the streets'. Interestingly, this call is not yet heard in the same way for our 'online streets'. Would citizens expect – and accept – their police forces to be present wherever they are online, similar to the 'neighbourhood police officers' we see on the streets?
Digital policing needs a societal discourse with an active police voice
We argue that in the interest of protecting the web from ‘being broken‘ (cp. Rüdiger’s ‘broken web hypothesis’ discussed above) and in a society that spends more time on the internet than in the community, a stronger and broader visible presence of police forces online is a necessity. In most countries, social media have become an integral part of police communication with the public. Some countries look into even more innovative approaches. For instance, the UK’s security service, MI5 entices potential candidates with the help of an online game under the question: “Do you have the skills to become a Mobile Surveillance Officer?”, while Dubai police experiment with autonomous vehicles and police robots. Yet, most of these digital efforts still consider internet-based applications simply as additional communication channels, instead of understanding the internet as an extension of citizens' everyday lived experiences that requires as much attention as our offline world (cp. Bayerl, 2017).
Of course, digital presence is not easy to define. Apart from the continuum ‘absent’ to ‘present’, we also need to consider other dimensions such as ‘inappropriate to urgently needed’ or ‘inacceptable to welcomed’. All of these require societal debates and fine-tuning.
What is therefore needed is a broader discussion about how police forces can be become an integral part of a digital society. This is less a debate about positioning police within a digital space, but about positioning police within a society in which being online is a normal (and increasingly larger) part of daily life. As citizens we have a shared responsibility to frame and define our boundaries and expectations. Police forces need to play an active part in this debate.
This blog test is based on an article originally published in Deutsche Polizei, July 2018.
Photo: Dutch neighbourhood officer on patrol (credit: Composite)
If you enjoyed reading this, try another one in our series of blog posts about aspects of safety from the Centre of Excellence in Public Safety Management (CESAM) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). It is intended to act as an introduction to the Centre’s work; to promote and foster the professional development and management of public safety organisations, and to give CESAM members a platform to share their observations and experiences as academics and citizens.
Bayerl, P.S. (2017). Soziale Medien in der Polizeiarbeit. BMBF-Fachkonferenz, Berlin.
Kunz, K.-L., & Singelnstein, T. (2016). Kriminologie. Eine Grundlegung (7th edition). Bern: Haupt Verlag.
Rüdiger, Th.-G. (2017). Das Broken Web? Available online: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/das-broken-web-thomas-gabriel-r%C3%BCdiger
Rüdiger, Th.-G. (2018a). 23 Millionen Deutsche Opfer von Cybercrime. Available online: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/23-millionen-deutsche-opfer-von-cybercrime-thomas-gabriel-r%C3%BCdiger/
Rüdiger, Th.-G. (2018b). Das Broken Web: Herausforderung für die Polizeipräsenz im digitalen Raum. In Th.-G. Rüdiger and P.S. Bayerl (eds.), Digitale Polizeiarbeit. Springer.
Wilson, J., & Kelling, G.L. (1982). The police and neigborhood safety - Broken Windows. Available online: https://manhattan-institute.org/pdf/_atlantic_monthly-broken-windows.pdf