On June 1, 2012, the United Kingdom's Cpl. Michael Thacker, 27, of 1st Battalion, The Royal Welsh, died after being shot while manning an observation post in Helmand, Afghanistan. Thacker's body was sent to the U.K. for his funeral, which was to be held in the poignant setting of Coventry Cathedral.
The day before the funeral, his brother, Cpl. Matthew Allison (also from the same regiment) and several colleagues were practicing as pallbearers in the church. The group decided to have a break and made their way to Browns Bar, located next door. Upon entering the bar, the soldiers were advised they wouldn't be served, as it was company policy not to serve soldiers in uniform. The soldiers said they felt "disgusted and numb" at being refused service.
News of the refusal to serve the soldiers soon spread and added further heartache for Cpl. Thacker's widow and their 2-year-old daughter. A "Boycott Browns" Facebook group was established, which, in the span of 12 hours, attracted 35,000 followers. Overnight, the owner of Browns received numerous threats posted on social media and nuisance phone calls to the bar.
Cpl. Thacker's funeral passed without incident, but the level of anger toward Browns Bar continued to escalate on social media. The Facebook page started to attract the interest of the English Defence League (a patriotic, far right organization), and tensions quickly began to rise.
As West Midlands Police's Chief Inspector, I was concerned about the possibility of large-scale demonstrations and disorder, but I knew just how effective digital media could be to instantly reassure. I visited Mr. Brown and found him in a distraught state. It soon emerged it was one of his staff members who had refused to serve the soldiers. Brown himself had no understanding of the unfolding events on social media, but was well aware of public feeling based on the abusive phone calls he had been receiving. Local and national media were clamouring to interview him.
I worked with Brown and assisted him in drafting a detailed written apology, which was later presented to Thacker's widow; who accepted. The dilemma now was how to quickly and effectively communicate the apology-and the acceptance-to the community before tensions escalated further.
Using a live video stream platform called Bambuser on my smartphone, I was able to take video of Brown's apology from the bar. Then, using my Twitter account (@kerryblakeman), the video was instantly transmitted through social media.
The public apology was readily available for everyone to view and was promoted via the West Midlands Police website (West-Midlands.Police.UK) and on various social media platforms. Within 24 hours the video was viewed 18,000 times; media organizations used clips of the video in lieu of a live interview with Brown.
The real-time monitoring of open source intelligence showed tensions were reducing and the planned demonstrations against Brown and his bar were cancelled. The acceptance of the apology by Thacker's widow was pivotal in helping calm the situation.
The person who started the Facebook group closed it down because their original aim was only for people to boycott Browns, not threaten the bar owner. The incident ultimately led to the sale of Browns Bar, as the local community continued to boycott the establishment.
So what are the lessons to come out of this incident? Social media now brings the instant ability to tell the world about an issue. When things that people interpret to be wrong happen in our communities, the potential for tensions to rise are very real and law enforcement agencies must have the capacity to react to this in a proactive way. Using video platforms to get messages across is now easily achieved and you don't have to wait for news crews to broadcast important key messages to manage tensions within communities.
Does your agency have the equipment and trained staff to be able to respond if a similar situation arises? This real life example demonstrates the importance and ease of using digital social media to reduce community tensions.
Law Officer Archives