A watchdog has issued a warning over police officers’ “unacceptable” use of WhatsApp to share sensitive operational information and discriminatory comments.
A senior Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) official told The Independent that messaging groups are “replicating the canteen culture in the online space” amid a series of investigations.
Claire Bassett, the IOPC’s deputy director general, said some officers were making “risky assumptions” that unacceptable posts were safe inside private WhatsApp chats.
“It may be that some police officers are saying things on WhatsApp, thinking they’re saying it in the equivalent of a tightly closed room, but actually that’s not the case,” she added. “It could be replicating the canteen culture in the online space.”
“That isn’t letting off steam or ‘banter’, it’s deeply offensive and undermining to public confidence and trust,” she said.
“Being a police officer is a really difficult job and we need to make sure they are fully supported, but misogyny and homophobia doesn’t do that … some of the stuff we’re talking about here is criminal.”
The IOPC believes WhatsApp is currently the most common platform seen in investigations over inappropriate and discriminatory messages, after overtaking Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.
Two Metropolitan Police constables admitted misconduct in public office this week after sharing photos from the scene where two sisters were found brutally murdered with friends and a group of colleagues on WhatsApp.
The court case came days after the watchdog revealed that the investigation into Sarah Everard’s rape and murder by Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens had spawned a series of other probes.
Several police officers will face misconduct proceedings, including a probationary constable who used WhatsApp to share a graphic meme depicting violence against women, in reference to the killing. Another constable allegedly shared the graphic and failed to challenge it.
The IOPC is continuing to investigate five officers from three forces, and one officer who allegedly sent misogynistic and racist messages as part of a WhatsApp group that included Couzens between March and October 2019.
In April, a Devon and Cornwall Police officer was acquitted of sending a grossly offensive image after sharing a meme depicting the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in the US. He has since been allowed to keep his job.
The man shared the image in a WhatsApp group of police officers and staff. Two members replied with laughing emojis, but a third complained to their manager.
There have been numerous other probes, including a case in August 2020 when 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.
Ms Bassett said WhatsApp messages that are not directly reported often emerge as part of unrelated investigations.
“If we have an incident where we end up seizing someone’s phone, we will see what WhatsApp groups they're in, we’ll see more content and things will mushroom,” she explained.
The official said the current volume of WhatsApp-related probes is believed to result primarily from the prevalence of the messaging platform in wider society.
She believes the form, rather than the content, of police officers’ messages has changed.
“We’ve got a broader cultural challenge around inappropriate language, jokes, the sharing of information and there’s been a spectrum of that for some time,” she added.
“What we are seeing is a culture that has possibly existed for some time being expressed on social media.”
Ms Bassett warned that officers who fail to report inappropriate messages in WhatsApp groups can also face disciplinary action.
“It’s important that fellow officers realise that turning a blind eye isn’t acceptable and we will see if a meme has been shared, or if they’ve looked at an offensive image and decided to do nothing,” she added.
The IOPC does not currently record figures for cases relating to specific social media platforms or messaging services, but is now looking specifically at WhatsApp as a phenomenon.
It has also warned forces to stop officers using it for work purposes where they share sensitive operational information.
“As with a lot of social media it had crept in, and other official systems for sharing information hadn’t caught up, but they’re better now,” Ms Bassett said.
She called for all police officers to adhere to official standards of professional behaviour, and be aware that even posts on private or anonymous social media accounts can be a breach.
Assistant chief constable Mark Travis, who is the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for tackling the inappropriate use of instant messaging and social media, said it had taken on recommendations from an IOPC review.
“We are actively working with the IOPC to put further guidance and safeguards in place for forces,” he added.
“Policing has clear standards of behaviour and a code of ethics, and we expect all officers to adhere to these when using messaging apps. While we know the vast majority of them do, unfortunately we have seen cases where messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, has been used inappropriately.
“Where officers don’t meet the expected standards of behaviour they will be managed robustly, and this could result in them losing their jobs or in the most serious cases, criminal conviction.”
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