By John V. Berry, Esq., www.berrylegal.com
One of the most important issues facing police officers these days is the issue of how to use social media in their private lives given their public careers. Social media can affect law enforcement officers in so many ways that multiple issues from private online activity can affect an officer at work. The goal of this article is not to say that law enforcement officers should not have social media accounts, but that they should be careful in what they post.
The following are some tips for law enforcement officers in what issues to avoid when they post to their social media accounts.
Be Extremely Careful What You Post
Despite the fact that many believe that the First Amendment protects police officers in their posting on social media, it cannot be overstated that police officers need to take special care in what they post. I have seen several cases where law enforcement officers have to deal with departmental disciplinary actions related to social media postings they have made. Typically, the most concerning issue happens when a law enforcement officer means no harm, but posts something that can be taken as an off-color comment or harassment of some form. Even if the police officer screens his friends list and security profile, we have seen numerous cases where law enforcement officers are disciplined as a result of what they have posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. A good rule of thumb is to not post anything that the officer would not be comfortable with his or her supervisors seeing. I have had more than a few cases involving comments made about a police supervisor that somehow gets back to the supervisor and then the officer is charged with insubordination or some general conduct unbecoming charge related to such comments. It is far easier to avoid making comments about a supervisor online than to defend against them later.
We have also had police disciplinary cases where other police officer witnesses have posted information, contrary to their testimony in disciplinary hearings, on Facebook. I have had cases like this where such information was not even protected by security protocols and open to the public. Other law enforcement officers have posted what borders on pornography or inappropriate photos on social media, and their supervisor, who was a friend on Facebook, files a complaint the following day with the department's Internal Affairs unit. It is very important to treat Facebook as a public and not a private forum. Furthermore, security settings on these social media accounts change so often that what seems private one day, can be publicly posted the next. The best solution is to just be careful in what the officer posts. Other problematic posts involve highly charged posts by law enforcement officers that end up in the media. The best tip here is to not post something on social media that you would be ashamed to have a supervisor see.
Do Not Discuss or Reference Cases or Investigations on Social Media
We have also represented officers that have gotten into trouble for posting clear (and not so clear) details about ongoing police investigations or court cases in which they are involved. It is very important that law enforcement officers leave investigative details, references and related photos off of social media. Also, it is advisable not to post anything related to law enforcement duties and members of the public. These issues have turned into serious disciplinary cases when a suspect or arrestee has found out that their case has been referenced on the Internet or social media. I have seen cases where we have had to defend officers that have posted pictures of traffic stops or of suspects. Again, it is not something that a law enforcement officer should necessarily be disciplined over, but it happens, someone complaints and then police departments tend to take action. We have even seen police officers disciplined over posting photographs of crime scenes or suspect pictures. Do not post anything related to cases, arrests or investigations (open or closed) on social media and avoid these problems.
Avoid Jokes About Fellow Law Enforcement Officers
Another issue that has arisen is where a police officer makes a seemingly harmless joke about a fellow officer. In some circumstances, this has led to the other officer (or someone else even) in filing a department complaint about bullying or harassment. This doesn't mean that an officer has to completely eliminate this, but the officer should be careful. The number of complaints of bullying within a police department is on the rise, and we have seen officers confronted with copies of their social media postings during investigatory interviews.
Do Not Friend Individuals Under Investigation
This may also go without saying, but it is very important that a law enforcement officer not become "friends" or otherwise linked through social media to individuals under law enforcement investigation (assuming that the officer is aware of this) or with significant criminal histories. We have seen a number of cases where individual officers have gotten into disciplinary or security clearance (where applicable) problems where officers were friends with an individual under investigation or with a major criminal background, leading to an investigation into that officer's connection with the individual. It is much better to avoid this issue altogether, so police officers should screen the people that they friend on social media.
Keep Private Information to a Minimum
A final tip is for police officer to be careful about the level of information about family and contact information that they place on social media. Suspects and others can use such information to attempt to track where a law enforcement officer or their family lives. In other words, just be careful. You can never really control the level of security on social media and should take caution in posting any personal information. It is better to be safe than sorry. Police officers should protect their privacy as a matter of officer safety.
In sum, law enforcement officers should be careful with social media. Social media is changing so fast these days that an officer can potentially get into administrative trouble and need legal defense when department's technology outpaces their policies in handling or disclosing such information. It is also a problem because many police departments have not developed strong or completely understandable social media policies. Our law firm advises and represents law enforcement officers in disciplinary and civil matters. We can be contacted at Berrylegal.com or by telephone at (703) 668-0070. The Firm's Facebook page can be found here.