As of this week, 1.37 million Twitter users are following at least one UK police Twitter account. Assuming they’re all in the UK (which is difficult to determine, but I’m slowly working on it) that’s 2.5% of the population aged 10 years or over. Twitter claims about 10 million users in the UK1, so more than one-in-ten appear to be following at least one police account.
Bearing in mind how difficult it can be for the police to communicate with communities (particularly with the decline of local newspapers), these are pretty impressive numbers. Communicating on Twitter is also free, bar the cost of any training that particular forces might use.
How did you find this out
Based on the UK Police on Twitter service that I’m running (more details), I downloaded lists of followers for each of the UK police Twitter accounts listed by Nick Keane (@nickkeane) from the College of Policing. I then used these data to identify every unique Twitter account that follows at least one UK police Twitter account.
Some people might worry that, although there are a lot of people following police accounts on Twitter, a lot of them might also be involved in policing. Thanks to Nick Keane we know that there are about 1,700 Twitter accounts belonging to UK police officers and staff in an official capacity, but there are lots of other people involved in policing and criminal justice. Some of the 1.37 million followers will be probation officers, local authority workers and so on.
If criminal-justice professionals made up a large proportion of the police followers, we would expect the median number of police accounts that people follow to be high. In fact the median number of police accounts followed is one (64% of police followers follow exactly one police account) – only 2.7% of police followers follow more than 10 police accounts. At the other end of the scale are the 1,228 people (0.1% of all police followers) who follow over 100 police accounts each.
Profiling all 1.37 million followers would be a huge task, but it seems fairly certain that the vast majority of police followers come from outside the criminal-justice bubble.
Most followed police on Twitter2
UK police Twitter accounts with the most followers: all types
|User||Followers||Proportion of population|
|Greater Manchester Police||134,100||5.1%|
|West Midlands Police||80,900||3.0%|
|Police Service of Northern Ireland||43,400||2.4%|
|British Transport Police||33,900||—|
The accounts with the most followers are all force-wide accounts. @gmpolice and @metpoliceuk have the most followers (more than 125,000 each), followed by @WMpolice with 81,000. The next two most-popular accounts belong to the Metropolitan Police: @MetPoliceEvents and @MPSinthesky.
Only four of the UK’s largest police forces3 are in this list, with @policescotland, @WestYorksPolice, @MerseyPolice, @ThamesVP, @NorthumbriaPol and @kent_police all missing. British Transport Police has the fewest officers of all the forces on this list, but it covers the whole of Great Britain and a lot of people travel by train so should probably be considered separately from all the others.
The Greater Manchester Police Twitter feed as more followers than the Manchester Evening News has readers and half as many as BBC Radio Manchester has weekly listeners, so it may well be one of their most important public engagement tools (I don’t know how many hits their website gets). It must surely be one of their most cost-effective engagement tools – a full-page advert in the MEN costs over £10,000. I can’t think of another medium where the police would be able communicate their message to 1 in 20 local people instantly, for free and without mediation.
UK police Twitter accounts with the most followers: individuals
|Mark Walsh||PC, Hampshire Constabulary||11,900|
|Michael Brown||Inspector, West Midlands Police||11,600|
|Mark Payne||Detective Superintendent, West Midlands Police||8,500|
|Ed Rogerson||Sergeant, North Yorkshire Police||6,200|
|Nick Gargan||Chief Constable, Avon and Somerset Constabulary||6,200|
|James Main||Sergeant, Humberside Police||5,700|
|Garry Shewan||Assistant Chief Constable, Greater Manchester Police||4,800|
|Richard Stanley||PC, West Midlands Police||4,800|
|Leigh Norris||Inspector, Essex Police||4,300|
|Darren Kirkwood||PC, Humberside Police||4,200|
All of these individuals are regular police officers, which might not have been expected since 39% of police employees are not officers but support staff, community support officers and others. All ten officers in the list are men, whereas 27% of police officers are women.
Until recently the individual officer with the most followers was Michael Brown (@mentalhealthcop), a West Midlands Police inspector who’s become a national expert on how the police should deal with mental health patients. His Twitter account and blog have won awards and got him profiled in the Guardian. He’s now got more followers on Twitter than half-a-dozen entire police forces, which is not bad for someone who also works 24/7 shifts running a response team. He’s also sent more tweets (almost 40,000 so far) than any other UK police officer. Just ahead of Michael in terms of followers is Mark Walsh (@HantsPCMark), a PC who works on criminal justice issues in Hampshire but tweets about a very wide range of police issues. I’m afraid I don’t know much about why Mark has been so successful on Twitter, so I’d like to here your thoughts in the comments.
Neither Mark Walsh nor Michael Brown can be described as ‘normal’ officers, since they’re both visiting lecturers at universities and experts in particular fields. Ed Rogerson, James Main, Richard Stanley and Darren Kirkwood are more representative of day-to-day policing but they are far more prolific tweeters (with an average of 17,000 tweets each) than most officers. Sergeant Main recently got this, err, glowing praise from @TheCustodySgt:
Basic command units
UK police Twitter accounts with the most followers: basic command units
|Birmingham||West Midlands Police||21,700|
|Manchester City Centre||Greater Manchester Police||13,300|
|Lothian and Borders||Police Scotland||13,000|
|Milton Keynes||Thames Valley Police||8,800|
The basic command unit (police district, area, command, borough etc.) with the most followers is @brumpolice, followed by @GreaterGlasgPol. Those districts cover very large cities, so smaller districts probably shouldn’t feel inferior.
Four of the remaining entries in the top ten are in Scotland, three of which (@LothBordPolice, @NorthernPolice and @TaysidePolice) were separate forces until earlier this year. Only two of the Met’s 32 boroughs make it into the top ten, although seven of the next ten BCUs are from the Met (@MPSCamden, @MPSBarnet, @MPSLewisham, @MPSHarrow, @EalingMPS, @LambethMPS and @MPSSutton), so they can claim nine of the top 20 in the UK.
Unfortunately no police account has yet got into the global megastar league on Twitter: @justinbieber, @katyperry, @ladygaga, @BarackObama, @taylorswift13, @rihanna and @britneyspears all have more than 30 million followers. The median number of followers for a UK police Twitter account is 542, which is pretty respectable considering many (possibly most) accounts belong to neighbourhood officers covering relatively small beats. More than 95% of UK police on Twitter have more than 100 followers. This seems to compare favourably to the global Twitter average: according to a recent report (which I can’t vouch for), about 87% of Twitter users have fewer than 100 followers.
I am slowly trying to classify each UK police Twitter account according to which force it belongs to, what rank the officer holds and what their policing speciality is, but this has to be done manually so it will take a while. Once that’s done I can start to look in more detail how the police are using Twitter. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.
1 This is difficult to verify, partly because there are so many Twitter users that it’s difficult to track them all and partly because Twitter doesn’t know where all of it’s users are. See this review for some links.
2 These figures are correct as of 18 August 2013 and are rounded to the nearest 100 followers.
3 i.e. largest by number of police officers.