Police are struggling to cope with complaints of menacing behaviour, stalking and sexual offences on social media. Forces may soon need dedicated Twitter and Facebook squads, a senior officer claims.
Chief Constable Andy Trotter, from the Association of Chief Police Officers, said a dramatic increase in the number of cases involving Twitter and Facebook is pushing resources to the limit.
Figures released by 29 police forces across England, Scotland and Wales following Freedom of Information requests show that complaints have rocketed by 780 per cent in four years, from 556 in 2008 to 4,908 this year. Of those, 46 people were charged in 2008, but that figure had shot up to 653 by 2012.
Harassment and menacing messages were the most common problems, but there were also sexual offences including grooming, complaints of stalking, allegations of racially aggravated conduct and reports of fraud.
Greater Manchester Police reported the highest number of complaints at 115. Mr Trotter said: "It is a new world for all and we could end up in a situation where each constabulary needs a dedicated Twitter squad. In my opinion, that would not be a good use of resources in difficult financial times.
"We need to accept that people have the right to communicate, even to communicate in an obnoxious or disagreeable way, and there is no desire on the part of the police to get involved in that judgment.
"But equally, there are many offences involving social media such as harassment or genuine threats of violence which cause real harm. It is that higher end of offending which forces need to concentrate on."
We have to respect free speech and cannot have police forces responding simply because of public outcry. Chief Constable Andy Trotter
Mr Trotter said offences can be roughly divided between crimes which would have been committed before the emergence of social media and those which exist because of the online platform. He insisted that the issue was not to curb freedom of speech, but to respond to serious incidents appropriately.
"We have to respect free speech and cannot have police forces responding simply because of public outcry," he said.
"In many ways, online communities can be self-regulating and good at weeding out unacceptable behaviour. We need to find a way of distinguishing between that type of behaviour and that which requires police intervention."
Earlier this year, following a number of high-profile cases involving Twitter, including Paul Chambers, who was convicted then cleared on appeal for allegedly threatening to blow up Robin Hood Airport, near Doncaster, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) issued fresh guidelines on which cases should be prosecuted.
Other high-profile cases include nine people each ordered to pay the woman raped by footballer Ched Evans £624 for naming her on Twitter or Facebook.
Mr Trotter welcomed recent guidance from the CPS, saying it set a "high threshold" for intervention and represented a first step towards a better -oordinated approach.