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Bobby on the Tweet: British Police Try Twitter

5 minute read
Catherine Mayer / London

It was billed as “policing by Twitter,” a first for London’s Metropolitan Police. Environmental campaigners had announced plans to set up a 3,000-person-strong “camp for climate action” in the British capital on Aug. 26. In the days leading up to the event, police and protesters both promised to start tweeting information to ensure its peaceful running. “We set up a Twitter site specifically,” says Chief Superintendent Helen Ball, the Met officer charged with explaining the purportedly high-tech, low-visibility operational policy. “The use of Twitter is within a range of different communication methods, improving understanding of why police are doing what they’re doing.”

What you won’t read in the tweets by @CO11MetPolice — the Met’s incarnation on Twitter — is the reason that London’s police are so eager for the climate camp to go off without serious incident. Once internationally famous for great detective work and the sweetly old-fashioned appearance of its dome-helmeted “bobbies,” the Met (also known as Scotland Yard, the name of its first headquarters) has seen its reputation tarnished of late. In the wake of the July 7, 2005, London bombings, Met police marksmen mistook Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes for a terrorist and fatally shot him as he boarded an underground train at Stockwell station. More recently, in April, as U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders arrived in the city for a G-20 summit, news vendor Ian Tomlinson was making his way home past a climate camp that had been erected in the financial district when he was pushed to the ground by a policeman. He later died from internal bleeding. Prosecutors are deciding whether to bring charges against the officer. The Met is seeking to redeem itself in the eyes of the British public — one reason for its attempts at transparency via Twitter.

(See the best social-networking applications.)

The organizers of the latest climate camp, scheduled to last until Sept. 2, refused to divulge their intended location in advance, instead inviting would-be participants to assemble at points across the city that were selected for their resonance. These included not only the London headquarters of totemic bogey corporations for the eco movement, such as mining giant Rio Tinto and energy company E-ON, but also the sites linked with de Menezes’ and Tomlinson’s deaths.

(See video of the G-20 protests in London in April.)

On Aug. 26, some 100 protesters waited outside the Bank of England for final directions to the climate camp, to be disseminated by SMS. “British police are the best in the world at policing,” says a man who identified himself as You Can Call Me Jeff (climate campers prefer to withhold their real names). “After all, they’ve had centuries of repressing social movements. They know how to win the battle of the story, to convince people they’re in the right. But at the G-20, they lost it.” Kat, another seasoned climate camper, agrees. She recalls watching riot police lash out with batons during the protests in April. “We put up our hands immediately,” she says. “They didn’t know how to deal with us being nonviolent.”

As she spoke, two Met officers endured with stoicism, if not humor, a little gentle baiting by the crowd, which had queued up to take pictures of them, mirroring the standard police practice of photographing crowds. Chief Superintendent Ball confirms that police will photograph people as they enter the climate camp. It’s important, she says, to know who is on site in case determined troublemakers infiltrate the ranks of peaceable environmentalists.

(See pictures of the G-20 protests in London in April.)

Despite having trumpeted the role Twitter would play in operations, the Met emitted only three terse tweets during the first day of the camp. “Mobile police station, for help or info, is in Wat Tyler Road,” read @CO11MetPolice’s last tweet of the evening. The campsite had finally been revealed: a scrubby stretch of common land in southeast London, the exact spot where Wat Tyler started an ill-fated peasants’ revolt in 1381.

“We think it’s worth noting that as the police launch their charm offensive and the government says they lead the world on climate issues, that Wat Tyler was murdered, the other leaders executed, and the King’s promise to agree to the people’s demands was revoked — as soon as the revolt was no longer a threat,” said a leaflet distributed by organizers. In anticipation of heavy-handed action by the authorities, the camp has been ringed by swiftly erected fencing and is guarded by volunteers perched on “tripods,” vertiginous lookouts fashioned from scaffolding poles. It’s unlikely, though, that these latter-day Wat Tylers will face a brutal expulsion from their temporary utopia. Climate campers promise “direct action,” but any such activity will probably take place off site. And this time, the Met is determined to keep its policing low-key.

(Read “A Case for Scotland Yard.”)

Indeed, the police presence at the camp was so minimal, with only a few uniformed officers visible at the perimeter, some protesters nervously wondered whether undercover officers might be moving among them. Much of this speculation appeared on Twitter, as camp residents tweeted about every moment of their first day with gusto on the camp’s official Twitter feed @climatecamp and on their personal feeds. Who needs undercover policing when activists document everything they do on Twitter? If the Met is monitoring the multiple tweets, it will know that its softly-softly approach has registered with the climate campers. A tweet from @climatecamp captured the mood: “Very amused that an ice-cream van managed to reach the front of the camp faster than the police vans :-)”

Read about Twitter on TIME’s list of the 50 Best Websites of 2009.

See pictures of the British police.

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