By Eric P. Daigle, Attorney, Halloran & Sage, LLP, Hartford, Connecticut
aw enforcement standards across the United States clearly set forth the need for specific policies to govern the actions and decision making of officers. In the age of Internet use and online social networking, has law enforcement provided the proper policies and procedures to take viable disciplinary action against the officers who utilize such social networking sites at the detriment of their departments? People of all ages have begun using social networking sites to interact with each other. Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook provide the opportunity to post minute-by-minute updates on activities, thoughts, and opinions. What implication does this create for law enforcement operations?
In 2009, an Indiana state trooper faced an Internal Affairs investigation for what was termed “compromising” photographs and statements that he posted on the Internet. An investigation conducted by a news organization found that the trooper had photographs in which he was posed with a .357 Magnum pointed at his head, drinking what he described to be lots of beer with his buddies, and lewd horseplay. The investigation showed that the trooper’s Facebook page was used to brag of heavy drinking along with updates about his activities at work.
|IACP Social Media Project|
In partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the IACP has launched a new initiative to build the capacity of law enforcement to use social media to prevent and solve crimes, strengthen police-community relations, and enhance services. The IACP will be creating practical tools and resources to enable law enforcement personnel to develop or enhance their agency's use of social media and integrate Web 2.0 tools into agency operations. For more information on the Web 2.0: Community Policing Online in the 21st Century project, please contact Nancy Kolb, Senior Program Manager, at 1-800-THE-IACP extension 813 or email@example.com.
This officer was not shy about sharing his views about police work, referring to himself not as a state trooper but as a “garbage man.” His Facebook page said, “I pick up trash for a living.” In fact, it is reported that the trooper went so far as to criticize and threaten people who resisted arrest and threatened police officers. He allegedly referred to an incident in California in which officers punched a homeless man during an arrest, and he wrote “Let someone, homeless or not, try and stab me with a pen, knife, spoon, etc., not only will he fail, he’ll probably end up shot. These people should have died when they were young anyway, I’m just doing them a favor.” [sic]
Once the trooper was identified by the media, he got the attention of the Indiana State Police. An investigation revealed that not only were these statements and photographs on the trooper’s Facebook page, but he would continually provide updates as to his location and what he was doing while allegedly working. The biggest concern for the state was that the trooper was “Facebooking” while on duty. It was alleged that records show multiple occasions when the trooper was on duty Facebooking about what he was doing and how he was doing it.1
This conduct is obviously unacceptable in the law enforcement workplace. Not only does this officer’s agency have investigation and disciplinary issues to contend with as a result of his behavior, it also must consider how this conduct reflects on his credibility.
Impeachment by MySpace
Consider the example of a New York officer who utilized his MySpace account to express his views. This became a concern for the officer when a man he had arrested for carrying a loaded gun went on trial in the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. A large portion of the prosecution’s case relied on the credibility of the officer who arrested him. The man on trial claimed that the officer and his partner stopped him, beat him, and planted a gun on him to justify breaking three of his ribs. On cross-examination, the attorney for the accused, who had done his research and had viewed the MySpace page for the arresting officer, asked him questions regarding why he had posted a description of his mood on his MySpace account as “devious.” Moreover, jurors learned that a few weeks before the trial, the officer had posted this status on his Facebook page: “[I am] watching ‘Training Day’ to brush up on proper police procedures.” What the jury’s actual take was on the officer’s posting a description of his mood as devious, and the officer’s response to questions regarding “Training Day,” is unknown. What is known is that the accused, who was on parole for a burglary conviction when he was arrested, was acquitted of the most serious charge—felony possession of a weapon and a bag full of ammunition—and was convicted only of resisting arrest.2
In addition to the comments listed on MySpace, the defense attorney had tracked down comments that the officer had made on the Internet about video clips of an arrest in which an officer punched a handcuffed man. The officer stated, “If he wanted to tune him up, he should have delayed handcuffing him.” He added, “If you’re going to hit a cuffed suspect, at least get your money’s worth because now he’s going to get disciplined for ‘a relatively light punch.’ ”
In New Bedford Massachusetts, the police chief recently initiated an internal affairs investigation after he received information that an officer had uploaded a crime scene photograph of a deceased male on her Facebook page. This dissemination of crime scene evidence is obviously improper for many reasons, but it is reasonable to expect that chiefs will see more of this conduct with officers carrying private cell phones and the interest such photographs generate on the Web.
Specific Regulation Is Needed
What is the lesson to be learned here? Law enforcement managers must convey to officers that comments and statements made in the cyber world are openly public and are preserved for everyone to see in perpetuity. Whether items are posted on a Facebook page, MySpace page, or blogs commenting on a newspaper article or YouTube video, specific rules need to be put in place to protect not only the officer, but the officer’s credibility, and the image of the agency. Most agencies have policies relating to the dissemination of information, protecting the integrity of investigations and maintaining the integrity and image of the department that apply to these situations. Every police chief should consider adopting a specific electronic social networking policy.
The question then becomes, “What conduct should be governed in a social networking policy?” While departments have policies regarding the proper use of the Internet and e-mail within the organization, the use of social networking should be more precisely addressed. Such policy direction should include but not be limited to the following:
- Ensuring officers do not indicate their affiliation with the agency when networking
- Prohibiting posting photographs that are taken on department property and/or while in uniform, including official department training, activities, or work assignments
- Ensuring that utilization of social networking Web sites, blogs, Twitter, or other medium or electronic communication is not done during office-duty time, and that any proof that this has occurred on duty and/or on department computers will result in discipline
- Prohibiting posting confidential and sensitive information along with photographs of ongoing criminal or administrative investigations
- Advising officers that an appropriate level of professionalism should be followed so as not to be detrimental to the mission and the function of the agency3
While agencies take specific interest in the Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts of new applicants to law enforcement employment, agencies must also provide guidance to the officers who are currently employed and utilizing these sites. Officers should be notified that during an administrative investigation, employees may be ordered to provide the agency with access to social networking sites when the subject of the investigation is directly, narrowly, and specifically related to an employee’s performance or ability to perform his or her function within the operation, or when the subject in the investigation is potentially adverse to the operation, morale, and efficiency of the agency. In a time where the legal standards as to privacy issues are being interpreted at all levels, the need to ensure clear standards are in place is more important than ever. ■
1Bob Segall, “Trooper in Trouble over Facebook Photos,” Indianapolis WTHR13, updated, March 30, 2009, http://www.wthr.com/global/story.asp?s=10066071 (accessed April 12, 2010).
2Jim Dwyer, “The Officer Who Posted Too Much on MySpace,” New York Times, March 10, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/11/nyregion/11about.html (accessed April 12, 2010).
3For additional recommendations about the contents and scope of social networking policies, see http://www.ConnectedCops.net and www.AELE.org.
Please cite as:
Eric P. Daigle, "Chief's Counsel: Social Networking Policies: Just Another Policy?" The Police Chief 77 (May 2010): 80–82,
http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&issue_id=52010&category_ID=3 (insert access date).