Dangers in Use of Social Media by Law Enforcement
Social media has become an accepted part of our everyday lives. Whether it be t-ball games, holiday pictures, or graduation ceremonies, events and moments can be instantly shared with thousands, even millions of people. This ability to instantaneously broadcast our lives can be a wonderful way to connect with friends and family who might live across the country. Servicemen and women deployed throughout the world can stay up to date with their children through platforms like Skype, Facebook, and Snapchat. But as with most things in life, there is a dark side to these sites and others. Long gone are the days of embarrassing moments being limited to those who witnessed the event in person. Entire collections of videos have been made of people tripping, falling, and otherwise having a bad day. Even crimes are being broadcast over live video feeds, sadly to thousands of eagerly awaiting viewers. But what about those in law enforcement? How does social media affect officers and their jobs?
It is rare to see a group of people out at a restaurant or concert and not see each of them quickly whip out their phones, capture the “perfect” picture, and immediately post to their various social media accounts. But it is not limited to just outside the office. Businesses and employers are being faced with the challenge of addressing issues of employees posting inappropriate comments or pictures, while obviously on the clock. Many employees make no attempt to hide the name of their employer or their occupation. While every profession is important and necessary, it is especially disconcerting to see pictures of first responders acting irresponsibly on duty.
But your social media account is your private life, right? Wrong. As soon as you upload that photo of you throwing back tequila shots or comment about that annoying coworker of yours, you have just sent it out to the public for inspection. Say for instance you were completely sober at the start of your shift, and your Facebook photos of your shots were just a joke. But now people are questioning your judgment. Maybe you had a bad shift and commented about it. As friends commiserated, you may have vented about a challenging commander, even to the point of being derogatory. That wasn’t a private conversation you had in a room with your friends; you have placed those comments online, forever.
As crazy as this sounds, there have been numerous accounts of employees posting pictures of their patients, suspects, and clients online, usually with a humorous comment. This jumps across the line of good judgment and over into lawsuit territory. Suspensions and even terminations have occurred due to ill-advised momentary acts meant to get a laugh. It is a blatant abuse of your power as an officer of the law to take a picture of someone and post it in this manner. And the argument of “they shouldn’t have put themselves in a stupid situation” is not a justification. As a police officer, you have been called to be someone people can trust, regardless of the situation. Any credibility you may have can be wiped out in one moment of social media irresponsibility.
In today’s time of social media proliferation, it is not only the duty of the individual but the employer to have a system in place to handle any misuse. Police departments need to have solid social media rules in place that every employee is familiar with.¹ Sound disciplinary measures should also be a part of that policy. Unfortunately, many departments will be faced with an incident that will call negative attention to them and their officers. And many times, the poor choice of one individual can tarnish the entire group. Hazing and discrimination matters have been posted on different social accounts, bringing entire departments under scrutiny. And many times, the swiftness and efficiency that those situations were dealt with helped the department recover quickly.
Another danger of social media for law enforcement officers is the spread of personal information.² By simply looking through friends, groups, and likes, you can typically find out someone’s geographical location. Many people even have pictures of their children standing in front of their school sign. Even proudly sharing pictures of updates to your home can put you and your family in danger. With increased threats to law enforcement, officers need to practice even greater vigilance. Placing everyday details of your life and family schedule can put everyone at risk.
And though this should go without saying, remember that not only are you under the scrutiny of those around you, you now may be under the eyes of whoever is watching a live feed of you in action. More and more people are sending live videos of officers in action over Facebook, Snapchat, and other platforms. One wrong word or move can suddenly catapult you and your department into the national spotlight. Just remember, newspapers run corrections to stories several pages back, but that one slip up, or misunderstanding will be front page headlines. No one is perfect, and you cannot operate in fear. Just be vigilant, respectful, and use good judgment. Before posting a pic or writing a sarcastic comment, pause and think how it will reflect on the badge and your family.
¹Dwyer, Terrence. PoliceOne.com. Risky Business: Law Enforcement and Social Media (Dec 18, 2012). Retrieved from https://www.policeone.com/social-media-for-cops/articles/6068508-Risky-business-Law-enforcement-and-social-media/
²Waters, Gwendolyn. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Social Media and Law Enforcement. (Nov 2012). Retrieved from https://leb.fbi.gov/2012/november/social-media-and-law-enforcement-potential-risks
John Becker Jr., MHS-C, CTR, has experience as a police officer, clinician, and outreach professional. John also possesses a personal understanding of substance abuse among first responders, having overcome addiction in his own life. He is the Director of First Responder Services, for Advanced Health and Education (www.advhealth.com) and was instrumental in developing and implementing Frontline Responder Services (www.frontlinerehab.com). John is an active member of the Montgomery County (PA) Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team and certified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) for individual and group interventions. John is a Certified Trauma Responder (CTR) and is also a member of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists (ATSS), and the National Police Suicide Foundation. He can be contacted at 215-833-1572 or [email protected].