Blue Line

finnish virtual police.txt

September 5, 2011  By Dr. Aisha Sherazi

Gone are the days where police officers regularly walk the streets. In suburban London where I grew up, officers would stop and chat, have the odd cup of tea at my parent’ s grocery store and knew everyone in the neighborhood. Growing up, I believe those interactions shaped the way I saw law enforcement.In an age where people barely have time to know their own neighbors, community policing seems to have been reduced to police officers connecting with community through events rather than neighborhoods.In a world where technology shapes the minds of young people, law enforcement will need to become wired into that technology, especially to reach out to youth. Increasingly, virtual solutions to every problem surface on the market. From ordering a coffee to “Kill Bin Laden Yourself,” which allows gamers to “…virtually experience the raid and pull the trigger to kill the Al Qaeda leader,” there appears to be no end to the innovative ways that technology will satiate our needs, however bizarre. In Finland, police have found novel ways to connect with young people by developing a virtual cop. Markos Forss had been a regular police officer for 13 years when he was assigned to a unit that investigated youth crimes. “In 2008 IRC-Galleria (a social networking site) was popular amongst young people. I started to see a connection between crimes amongst youth under 18 and the Internet. I began to explore the idea of creating a police profile on the site.”After convincing senior management as to the merits of the idea, “Fobba” was born.”Initially, most young people thought the profile “Fobba” was a hoax, but slowly, I was able to connect with young people through the site and break down the stereotypes about police officers. Once I built up some rapport with young people through IRC-Galleria, I (also) began to use Messenger and Facebook as tools to connect .”Forss soon realized that he was too busy to do his regular investigative work. Within the space of seven months 22 criminal reports were filed (17 were sexually related), 70 tips were received providing leads for potential crimes and nine reports were made to social services for suicidal chats and depression. Senior officers started to see the fruits of Forss’ labor. He was doing the investigative legwork that a police officer would normally do face-to-face or patrolling streets in a car, except he was at a desk behind a computer screen.Through his online work, he was able to investigate school-related crimes, as well as find out what was happening socially amongst young people. He was able to glean where young people were meeting and through observing chats was able to ascertain alcohol and drug use. The virtual program has gone from strength to strength, with young people using social media tools to reach out to “Fobba”. Numerous online police officers have been hired, with further profiles set up. An online police fan club (Suomen Polisi) has been created, along with a You Tube channel, blogs and a twitter account. “Virtual policing has many uses, especially amongst young people. It is easier somehow to chat to an officer online when it comes to personal issues; less intimidating somehow. Using the Internet, we can inform the public about laws and answer questions. In a time where Internet crime itself is an issue and young people are preyed on, having an Internet presence has been important in providing a feeling of security online. We don’t limit freedom of speech on any of our sites, but we do intervene if a line is crossed legally, for example in cases of bullying, as well as potential sexual crimes,” Forss says. Online policing may have huge applications for radicalization. Young people can essentially go anywhere and read anything online. A police presence online wouldn’t limit that freedom but may prove useful in opening up a dialogue with young people and understanding how they think, perhaps even attracting investigative leads. To the vast majority of youth, the time when people didn’t connect using online technologies is similar to a time when people had no electricity. Connecting electronically is a way of life. The idea of virtual policing seems to be picking up amongst law enforcement officials and Forss has been invited to speak about the initiative in other countries. “Almost every country’s approach to social media so far has been communicative. It’s great if communications departments are using social media but no other country has gone for a direct approach, with officers themselves showing their real face and real name. Officers using real names and faces is key to the success of harnessing the powers of social media in order to reach out to young people,” Forss says.Interestingly, even from behind a computer screen, young people detect sincerity and open up to people demonstrating it. Time will tell if other countries will adopt the Finnish model of virtual policing. Without a doubt, in a rapidly changing world, the best way to beat youth crime will be less and less about an “officer on the beat” and more about online profiles, chats and tweets.

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