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Back to Archives | Back to July 2011 Contents 

Protecting Officers Online, Off Duty: How Police Chiefs Can Safeguard Officers with Policy Guidance on Social Networking

By Michael Masterson, Chief of Police, Boise, Idaho, Police Department; and William L. Bones, Captain, Boise Criminal Investigative Division, Boise, Idaho, Police Department


he headlines have become far too common: “Facebook Photos Lead to Internal Police Investigation”;1 “Police Investigate Report of Officer Posting Photo of Dead Body on Facebook”;2 and “Cop Says Facebook Postings Got Him Fired.”3

These headlines reveal cases where officers not only lost their jobs but damaged their credibility and the credibility of the police agencies for which they work or worked. To say the headlines are simply embarrassing ignores the very real and lasting effect these cases will have on interagency trust and cooperation, public perception of professionalism and integrity, and even operational and officer safety. Increasingly, police chiefs are recognizing the need to protect their officers online on and off duty with policy, guidance, and training.


Debating the Need for New Policy

Over the past decade, many police agencies, including the Boise, Idaho, Police Department, significantly downsized policy manuals, separating procedures from policies and deciding that individual misbehavior does not drive the need for a policy. Today, most police agencies have “right-sized” their policy manuals and scrutinize suggestions for new additions.

Lincoln, Nebraska, Police Chief Thomas K. Casady is one of a handful of police leaders who began to issue social networking guidance to agency employees as early as 2007. In a memo to the department, Chief Casady urged employees to use a “front-page newspaper test”: Do not put anything in a report, letter, memo, email, blog, online post, or any other medium if the content would be embarrassing or discredit the department if published in the local newspaper.4 After becoming aware of some ill-advised Internet postings made by department employees, the chief candidly admitted that no one is beyond immature commentary, and he reminded employees that even if Internet accounts are password protected, if anyone else can see it, they can save it, forward it, or otherwise share it.

In early 2009, at the direction of the command staff, a committee of Boise police employees began studying the need for a new policy on the use of social networking sites by members of the department. A survey of Boise police employees found a high percentage of department-employed individuals used social networking sites, on duty and off duty, for professional reasons including research, investigations, and training, as well as for personal communication. Approximately 75 law enforcement public information officers from agencies across the country were surveyed for the study. Only 2 reported their agencies had addressed the issue of employee social networking use with policies.

The committee also solicited input from the 27 chiefs who make up the Benchmark Cities Group.5 In early 2009, Chief Craig Steckler, Fremont, California, Police Department, a member of the benchmark group and currently the IACP Second Vice President, also posed the question of whether or not a policy on employee social networking use is necessary, following his attendance at a meeting of the IACP Police Image and Ethics Committee. At that time in early 2009, the overwhelming majority of benchmark group chiefs saw no need for a new policy, with most citing they would use punishment deemed suitable for conduct unbecoming an officer for any behavior violations found through Internet posts. With this information, the employee committee of the Boise Police Department recommended against a new social networking policy.

But postings by officers and other emergency responders continued to make headlines nationwide and very publicly cast doubt on those officers and their abilities to make good judgments. The posts cost jobs and court cases. In some cases, the Internet posts affected morale and damaged critical working relationships between emergency responders and partner agencies. Some of the online behavior was so flagrant and disturbing when viewed by the public that chiefs began to realistically fear the public’s trust in the professionalism of the police agencies that had been involved in such online violations.

Facing what appeared to be a rising tide of online missteps by officers online by mid-2009, Boise Police Department commanders reconsidered the employee committee’s recommendation and began exploring a draft policy designed to educate and guide employees’ use, both personal and professional, of social networking. Other agencies were taking early steps to create forward-looking, proactive, and preventive approaches meant to keep their employees safe in the cyberworld. Following are several examples:

  • Portsmouth, Virginia, Police Chief Ed Hargis said the purpose and scope of creating a policy is to establish guidance concerning personal web pages or Internet sites when referencing the Portsmouth Police Department and to ensure employees use appropriate discretion so as not to discredit the department or themselves.
  • Minneapolis police added a supplement to the City of Minneapolis Electronic Communications Policy. The department offers advisory caution and points out that all posted information is subpoenaed and may be used to discredit and impeach an officer’s testimony and character.
  • Utica, New York, Police Chief Mark Williams decided his agency needed to be proactive in writing a policy instead of being reactive. The need for the policy came after Chief Williams’s realization of problems elsewhere where defense attorneys were accessing “social media websites for damaging photos and posts from police officers in order to discredit them on the witness stand during criminal trials.”6

The decision made by Boise Police Department and increasingly more police agencies is to adopt a social networking policy to proactively offer caution and education for employees rather than waiting for them to misstep and bear the consequences.


Free Speech and Unique Obligations

Leadership in the virtual age requires safeguarding officers’ reputations and that of police departments, too. In crafting a department policy on employee use of social networking sites, the Boise police staff worked closely with city attorneys on critical areas including consideration of employees’ rights to free speech as well as social networking’s impact on Brady v. Maryland7 and potential impeachment issues for police employees.

Brady and the subsequent state and federal cases interpret the requirement that the prosecution disclose material exculpatory evidence to the defense. As law enforcement leaders are well aware, recent court rulings building on Brady have further developed rules for disclosing evidence that might also be used for impeachment purposes against officers. Virtual impeachment may now be included in Brady disclosures, meaning that the free sharing of one’s random thoughts and personal life on the Internet may indeed have serious and careerending consequences if that information is used to discredit a police employee’s testimony in court.

For example, the officer who posted his mood as “devious” on his Myspace account had that and more mined from his “ruthless” Internet postings by a defense attorney, allowing the defendant to be acquitted of a felony unlawful weapons possession charge.8

The credibility of an entire department may be called into question by employees’ online comments, like the officer who objected in a Facebook interview to having to enforce a new immigration law, or the officer who tweeted “I’m in favor of legalization. Marijuana laws are a waste of time and money.”9 When it comes to postings on social networking sites, officers should be cautioned that anything they write, post, tweet, and allow to appear in virtual space may be used against them in a courtroom.

In an article outlining the number of employees at the U.K. Ministry of Justice and Scotland Yard disciplined or terminated for misuse of social networking, Keith Crosley, an email security specialist for a Sunnyvale, California–based company, said, “It is worrying that so many personnel who work in two of the UK’s leading law enforcement agencies are bringing them into disrepute, if not risking operational security by the way they conduct themselves online.”10

When the Boise Police Department’s social networking policy was adopted, the department mandated training for all 400 employees. Many were surprised to learn that case law exists that allows a government employer to, under appropriate circumstances, restrict an employee’s First Amendment rights—speech restraints that would be unconstitutional if applied to the general public. Department legal advisors helped shape training that informed employees that the agency could regulate speech and conduct as it (1) affects the employee’s or agency coworkers’ job performance; (2) affects management’s trust and confidence in the employee’s job performance; or (3) interferes with or adversely affects the agency’s mission.

In law enforcement, there are no second chances when it comes to the necessary values of honesty, integrity, and professionalism. Cara Donlon-Cotton, a former police training instructor, said in an abstract for her recent article titled Social Networking Policies: Maintaining Public Trust, “You must have strict regulations regarding what officers can post online about their jobs and the department to protect them and the agency. The clearer you are, the fewer the problems will arise. Specific guidelines are a must.”11


Crafting a Social Networking Policy

In the end, the Boise Police Department chose a social networking policy meant to be a precautionary, proactive, and educational tool for employees.

In the policy, members are reminded that their conduct both on duty and off duty must meet a high standard. This includes but is not limited to conduct related to materials posted on the Internet or disseminated electronically. No member shall allow or permit any digital media to be posted on the Internet that

  • could reasonably be interpreted to express the opinions of the Boise Police Department. A member may comment on a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public provided that, in doing so, the member does not suggest or imply that the views expressed are those of Boise Police Department.
  • has both a reference to the member being affiliated with Boise Police Department and that contains content that is unprofessional, unbecoming, or illegal, such as lewd sexual conduct, excessive alcohol consumption, or similar behaviors. Members are reminded that courts may scrutinize the credibility of a witness from unintentional sources like the Internet.
  • could be reasonably interpreted as having an adverse effect upon agency morale, discipline, operation of the agency, safety of staff, or perception of the public.
  • contains any recording, including images, obtained while engaged in the performance of enforcement activities, tactical situations, or anything that will have an adverse effect upon the agency. Digital images such as Shop with a Cop, promotion ceremonies, and so on, are permissible.
  • does not apply to Internet postings for legitimate law enforcement purposes.

Clarification on appropriate postings, if needed, shall be directed to command staff.

To summarize, the policy does not prohibit social network use or even postings of officers engaged in department ceremonies or community service. The policy does not call for random checks or order members to provide department access to their personal sites.

The policy does remind employees their behavior online on duty and off duty is a direct reflection of the entire department’s integrity, that the public expects their behavior to reflect the highest standards of professionalism, and that maintaining public confidence and trust in the department is critical to the successful accomplishment of the mission of ensuring public safety.

The IACP Center for Social Media offers police executives a tremendous resource with fact sheets, case studies, and a model policy.12 With the world of social networking evolving every day, the IACP Center for Social Media is an extremely valuable site to exchange policies and training, share stories, and question colleagues about how they handle new social media experiences. It is highly preferable to talk about these issues today versus reading about them in tomorrow’s headlines.


Conclusion

Back when most serving police chiefs started their careers, the day’s events or even the frustrations that come with any line of work were shared together at a variety of social settings. In briefings, they would find release from dealing with the heinous things they encounter on a daily basis through their senses of humor.

Police department employees have not stopped these venting behaviors, but they have changed the medium through which they communicate their frustrations. Today, a passing thought or a gripe posted on Twitter or Facebook is not kept among friends; it could essentially be available to the entire social networking universe. What may have been an inside joke when posted online can quickly lose its context when it is shared with an audience that finds the comment offensive and objectionable. Social networking sites have become a popular and primary source of information sharing, and the trend is not going away. New technologies are presenting new challenges for officer safety in a huge variety of ways, and those technologies are developing at a frantic and almost overwhelming pace.

Leadership in the virtual age requires new skills, training, approaches, and guidance, along with constant vigilance to safeguard agency employee safety and maintain the agency’s integrity. The very nature of the work law enforcement officers do and the departments chiefs lead involves granting a great deal of autonomy and empowerment to employees. If officer safety in the physical world demands policy, so does protecting officers in the virtual space.

Find the Boise Police Department on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/BoisePoliceDepartment; follow the department on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/BoisePD; or watch its channel on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/boisepolice. ■


     Chief Michael Masterson joined the Boise Police Department in January 2005 after serving 28 years with the Madison, Wisconsin, Police Department.
     Captain William L. Bones is the captain over the Boise Police Criminal Investigative Division. His past assignments include commanding both the Patrol and Professional Standards divisions.


Notes:

1“Facebook Photos Lead to State Police Internal Investigation,” FoxNews.com, August 23, 2010, http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/08/23/facebook-photos-lead-state-police-internal-investigation (accessed May 3, 2011).
2Brian Fraga, “Police Investigate Report of Officer Posting Photo of Dead Body on Facebook,” SouthCoastToday.com, January 5, 2010, http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100105/NEWS/1050330 (accessed May 3, 2011).
3“Cop Says Facebook Postings Got Him Fired,” WSTV.com, December 8, 2009, http://www.wsbtv.com/news/21900267/detail.html (accessed May 3, 2011).
4Tom Casady, January 31, 2010 (6:41 p.m.) comment on Laurie Stevens, “Recruits Who Blog,” ConnectedCOPS.net (blog), January 30, 2010, http://connectedcops.net/?p=1523 (accessed May 4, 2011).
5The Benchmark Cities Group, a coalition for mutual support, was originally designed in 1997 by a core group of police chiefs from around the country. These chiefs sought to establish measurement tools and information sharing to help ensure their departments were providing the best service possible within their respective communities. As of 2010, 27 police agencies from around the country were members. For more information, visit http://www.opkansas.org/Documents-and-Forms/List/Benchmark-City-Survey (accessed May 3, 2011).
6Joleen Ferris, “Policing Police on Social Networking Sites,” WKTV.com, February 16, 2010, http://www.wktv.com/news/local/84492582.html (accessed May 3, 2011).
7Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).
8Jim 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 May 3, 2011).
9Tweet from an officer who wishes to remain anonymous, October 15, 2010.
10“Ministry of Justice and Met Staff Disciplined for Social Network Use,” Info Security, February 16, 2010, http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/7349/ministry-of-justice-and-met-staff-disciplined-for-social-network-use/ (accessed May 3, 2011).
11Cara Donlon-Cotton, “Social NetworkingPolicies: Maintain Public Trust,” abstract, Law and Order Magazine 58, no. 5 (May 2010), http://www.hendonpub.com/resources/articlearchive/results.aspx?subject=Social+Networking&perpage=5&Page=2 (accessed May 4, 2011).
12IACP Center for Social Media, http://www.iacpsocialmedia.org (accessed May 3, 2011).


Please cite as:

Michael Masterson and William L. Bones, "Protecting Officers Online, Off Duty: How Police Chiefs Can Safeguard Officers with Policy Guidance on Social Networking," The Police Chief 78 (July 2011): 66–68.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 78, no. 7, July 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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