09/11/2011 06:20 GMT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:12 GMT

When the Thin Blue Line Just Wants a Cold Beer

In my last article for this journal, I detailed how consumer brands are watching what their customers say about their products and services - turning the traditional method of customer service on its head by intervening before a customer even complains.

This is all very well in the British private sector, but I experienced an incident today with the policia civil (civil police) in São Paulo, Brazil, that made me wonder if the public sector the world over has a long way to go in understanding how the public want to interact with law enforcement officials.

Sometimes the cops just don't help themselves. Last week, my wife and I were eating lunch at the front of a local restaurant. A police car pulled up at the bar opposite where we were eating and two uniformed policia civil officers stepped out and ordered lunch - with beer. Mysteriously, they were invited to park in the underground staff car park, ensuring their presence wasn't so obvious.

Ignoring the fact that they were obviously drinking and driving, I started asking my wife about the rules on how police officers should behave in public. Can they smoke cigarettes when on duty? We have both seen it. Can they drink alcohol and drive a vehicle funded by the public purse? Obviously, because they are doing it right under our noses.

But should police officers, armed with guns and live ammunition ever be drinking alcohol in public - even if they remain below the legal limit for drinking and driving?

A key question for me was whether the police were on duty or on their way home from a shift, though this does not change the fact that they both remained armed. Any local incident requiring police support might lead to them entering a dangerous situation with guns loaded and their judgement seriously impaired.

My wife went to the policia civil Facebook page and asked them about the rules on how police officers should behave regarding smoking and drinking when in uniform. It was a genuine enquiry asked out of interest and focused on understanding whether there is a difference between officers on duty, or on their way home from work - even if they are still in uniform and armed.

At first they dodged the question, correcting her use of 'officials in uniforms' - and suggesting that it must have been the military police and therefore not their problem.

After capitulating to their terminology and agreeing that perhaps 'officials' was not the best way to describe the officers - who were both clearly wearing policia civil uniforms - the suggestion from the police on Facebook was to call a telephone information line to clarify the policy.

That wasn't really what we were looking for. My wife responded that it would be useful to clarify the question publicly on Facebook, so the other thousands of readers could understand police policy on drinking in public.

There was no answer to the original question. No attempt was made to indicate whether it is acceptable or not for armed officers to be drinking beer in public or not.

They just deleted the entire conversation on Facebook - the original question and all the replies. And this was when the original question and comments to the police were polite and just asking about a question of policy - this was no deranged protest or abuse of the police service.

The Occupy protests in New York, London, and other major cities have also spread to São Paulo, but the tactic here was not to engage in dialogue with the protestors. The police intimidated anyone prepared to stand up and try to make their voice heard by ensuring police outnumber the protestors by at least a factor of ten to one.

If this is the way the police in Brazil handle public protests - and even polite policy questions on Facebook are closed down and deleted - then is it any wonder they face a wave of public anger and distrust?

The Metropolitan police in London come in for a fair amount of criticism from the British public, but contrast this behaviour in Brazil to the intelligent and nuanced use of social media by the Met - especially when gathering intelligence related to the London riots this past summer.

No modern police service can refuse to engage in dialogue with the citizens they are there to protect and Facebook is just a relatively recent way for the police to talk to the public. If they choose to start deleting intelligent questions that question their policies and behaviour then they may as well forget about counting on the public - the people who pay their salaries - for support.