Cyberpsychology, Health and wellbeing, Research

Project investigates protecting police officers and their families from rising risk of online harm

An ambitious nationwide research project is exploring how to protect police officers and their families from increasing online aggression and threat.

16 October 2023

By BPS Communications

The project is believed to be the first of its kind looking at the online harm suffered, not just by police officers, but their partners and children as well, as the consequences of the abuse spill over into their personal lives, at times with ‘dramatic repercussions’.

The initial findings from the multi-professional study, 3PO – Protecting public facing professionals and their dependents online, were presented at The British Psychological Society Cyberpsychology Section’s conference.

Semi-structured interviews with police officers and their family members have revealed officers subject to trial by social media, having their identity revealed against their will, and they and their families facing online persecution.

As a result, families have been forced to move homes, change schools and, in Northern Ireland, to deal with car bombs after police officers’ identities were revealed online.

Lead researcher Saskia Bayerl, Professor of Digital Communication and Security at the Centre of Excellence in Terrorism, Resilience, Intelligence and Organised Crime Research (CENTRIC) at Sheffield Hallam University, said:

“Police officers operate in the public eye with at times dramatic repercussions for their private lives. Increasingly, they face online aggression and threats in relation to their work.

“Their loved ones – spouses, children, and other close family members – are also directly affected, either because they too are targeted or because they must live with fears and accept restrictions to their own lives.

“This can include limiting their own online activity to safeguard their police officer loved ones.”

Chartered BPS member Dr Kate Whitfield, Associate Professor of Forensic Psychology at the Centre for Behavioural Science and Applied Psychology, Sheffield Hallam University, and one of the study researchers, added:

“Partners of police officers must often be extremely cautious, even though they have nothing to do with the police service themselves.”

She cited the example of one person who had to learn surveillance skills to protect their police officer partner when dropping them off anywhere.

“Mostly, police officers accept that the harassment that they and their families face online is part of the job. It speaks volumes about police officers’ resilience,” Dr Whitfield said.

“While the abuse is often framed as a way to redress police injustices, it is often baseless and threatens officers' social standing as well as their mental and physical health.

“It forces officers to make difficult choices about what they post online, and whether they tell someone they are a police officer, or not.”

The three-year research project, which featured among the presentations at this year’s BPS Cyberpsychology Section conference in July, is funded by the UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) and involves five universities, six partner police forces and the Home Office.

As well as assessing online risks and protection needs of police officers and their families, it aims to develop online tools to help mitigate harm, contribute to organisational policy development, and provide non-technical protection measures such as training materials.

Dr Ingolf Becker, Lecturer in Security and Crime Science at University College London and another of the study researchers, said:

“Looking ahead we believe that what comes out of the project in terms of insights and protection measures will be relevant for other public-facing professions faced with the same challenges – such as NHS staff, politicians, teachers, emergency services and journalists – and that we’ll be able to transfer these to them.”

For more information about the research, visit the project website.

3PO Summary Report: Overview of initial findings