There is no need for new laws to govern how the police deal with abuse of the social media website Twitter, a senior police spokesman said today.
Recent cases, including the arrest of a teenager in connection with abusive tweets directed at Olympic diver Tom Daley and the jailing of a student for inciting racial hatred by tweeting about the footballer Fabrice Muamba, have sparked debate over the extent to which the forces of law and order should get involved in policing Twitter.
A representative of rank-and-file officers today warned that police are "stretched almost to breaking point" and cannot be expected to investigate "every instance of stupidity within Twitter".
Stuart Hyde, the Chief Constable of Cumbria, who speaks on e-crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that it was right for police to intervene where individuals' lives were being made a misery by Twitter "trolls", but insisted that it was important for forces to take a "common sense" approach.
He rejected calls for new laws to govern Twitter and said that problems may eventually be resolved by the website itself acting to root out abuse.
Asked if new laws were needed, Mr Hyde told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "No, I think we have got quite a lot of legislation, dating back to the Malicious Communications Acts of 1998 and 2003. There is a lot there that helps us and gives us the power to do stuff.
"This is a new technology, a new way of communicating, it has grown exponentially. There hasn't been separate legislation, so we are using legislation that wasn't particularly created for this, but it works reasonably well most of the time.
"We are learning from it, there are things that have sometimes gone wrong and I think sometimes it is important that we make sure we provide the service people need.
"If people come to us and say 'I am really upset, I've been offended, my life has been made a misery and I want somebody to do something about it', then yes the police should, whenever possible, try to help."
Police Federation spokesman Steve Evans warned that officers cannot be expected to investigate every complaint about abuse and offensive language on Twitter.
Mr Evans told Today: "The sheer scale of it is huge. Police resources are stretched almost to breaking point, so if we started trying to investigate every instance of stupidity within Twitter, then we would be really pushed.
"That doesn't mean to say we won't deal with criminal offences. If criminal offences are clearly there, then it is the police's job to investigate them."
Mr Hyde said that police have so far not received large numbers of complaints about abusive Twitter messages.
He said: "I don't want police officers dragged off the streets to deal with frivolous complaints. Where these complaints are pretty serious, then it is quite right that we should intervene, and we do that."
Officers need to take "a common sense perspective" and exercise discretion about complaints, he said.
"It is important to look at the whole context. It is not just about one tweet, it is a whole range of tweets. Look at what the individual has done - is this a concerted attempt to have a go at one individual in a way that passes the threshold for offences against the law? If it is, then clearly we should intervene and do something to stop it."
Mr Hyde said that he hoped that negative publicity about celebrities like Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton quitting Twitter would prompt the company to take action.
"I think there is a case that if you are going to run it as a commercial organisation, then you have got to allow people to use it safely and securely, and have the processes in place where people are acting in a strange way - and the word troll comes to mind - then you get them off as quickly as possible," he said.