Being Accountable: Social Media and The Force

Just as social media is important to law enforcement agencies for investigative purposes and community engagement, it is also imperative for them to monitor and police their own personal accounts. What does this mean for peace officers? As an officer, your life changes once you put on the uniform and badge. You cannot afford to be reckless with your personal life and often times you may lose friends or have to adjust your personal choices to meet policy requirements. Police culture and conduct standards are somewhat restrictive and blend into personal actions. One such lifestyle restriction is tied to one’s personal social media accounts.

In recent news, officers of all ranks have faced disciplinary actions including termination due to their Facebook comments, internet behavior, or videos they have posted on social media outlets. Some negative outcomes have become national news due to their viral emergence with social popularity. These “social marks” are destructive to individual careers and tarnish an organization’s status with the community.

Many departments have specific policies in place governing internet behavior in order to standardize police conduct. Some are lax. Some are strict. Agencies may go so far as to prohibit officers from using personal social media sites in entirety or perhaps refrain them from publicly displaying any photographs of themselves in department uniforms.

Why is it necessary for agencies to monitor police officers on their off-duty time and to regulate their personal use on the internet? Law enforcement organizations must keep compliance with all employees so something publicly shared is not injurious to their function. Social media accounts have no rights to privacy. The internet has been known for photographs, comments, and videos to be preserved in perpetuity which can be detrimental to an officer’s career if something shared publicly is in conflict with agency policy or is deemed unsuitable. These questionable incidents are most likely to be reviewed because of an ethics violation, a moral conflict, or a confidentiality problem.

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What is the best practice for law enforcement officers? What about personal enjoyment factors? One examination for leaders to gauge if social media is unacceptable is whether an officer displayed a photo, comment, or post with an inappropriate level of professionalism, violated policy, broke confidentiality, or if their actions created public distrust or animosity. Officers who are not prohibited by their departments to have personal social media accounts should know what is and is not satifactory internet behavior both in regards to public acceptance and policy lines.

One litmus test is to see if a post, comment, or video would pass the “shock factor”. If it is likely to create shock and awe, it might not measure up to department code. Additionally, if it incites anger or creates a social commenting frenzy, it may draw attention from administrators or Internal Affairs. Furthermore, any citizen can report internet behavior to department supervisors which may also lead to internal investigations and disciplinary problems.

Organizational leadership grapple with these such policies due to their recognition that healthy recreation and personal entertainment are necessary for their employees’ mental clarity. Departments encourage hobbies and off duty pastimes to help balance an officer’s well being. At the same time, if an officer’s actions conflict with their organization’s mission, he or she may face internal actions when their behavior is deemed unreasonable or violates a policy or law. While it is certainly true officers are entitled to opinions and personal enjoyment of the internet, they still have to remain professional in order to safeguard their career.

It is a fine line and many struggle with the lack of freedom some department policies contain. When a department has in place a social media policy controlling personal use, officers should be apprised of its contents and given guidance from administrators. Due to the scrutiny officers face by the public, many opt out of personal social media use or are confined to limited use.

Personal social media can be a positive outlet or way to connect for officers on their off-duty time. When an officer maintains a reasonable standard of professionalism, personal use and policy abidance can be in concert. Even if an account has viewing privileges such as passwords, membership requirments, or friending capabilities, all information can be subject to perusal by a person who has conflict with the data. As a result,  that conflict could potentially be reported as offensive. In any case, if officers act as their own watchdog over their personal accounts, they can steer clear of any controversy. If you are interested in law enforcement, you may want to tidy up your social media as prospective employers use it as a tool to gauge your character. Keep in mind internet use is like leaving your fingerprint every where for all to see and it is crucial as a peace officer to keep a positive reputation.