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Cover Story

Watch What You Post

Social networking sites are great for meeting new people and having some fun, but don't let that fun kill your career.

December 10, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

Officer Reaction

The implementation of such policies has taken some cops aback.

"Cops are not only being held to higher standards," notes one Massachusetts police officer, "but in some cases, unreasonable standards."

Many officers say the "do as I say, not as I do" posture of some agencies is especially annoying, as their employers and commanders see themselves uniquely capable of maintaining professional online content. Others say they don't appreciate the interference in their personal lives.

"It's like freedom of speech, apparently there are some who think you should be able to tell a cop to go expletive himself without repercussion and yet they also believe that a cop should be disciplined for using any profanity (called command presence when I write my report or testify in court). Shouldn't then a social network profile be freedom of speech?" asked one officer.

And while many officers understand the impetus for anti-social networking policies, they still resent them.

"It's all about liability. We have enough of that stuff already as cops, I'm not giving anyone another weapon to try and take my job away."

Use Common Sense Online

Salt Lake City PD's Snyder can only shake her head when she contemplates some of the trouble cops have gotten themselves in behind social networks.

"It seems that police officers have more common sense when it comes to using their gun in the field if they have to," Snyder notes. "When they go into a restaurant, they know to sit with their back to the wall, they know if something happens where their escape routes are. But they never think about if they post something on Facebook. Are they going to offend somebody racially or by sexual orientation? They never think about that kind of stuff. Officers should know better than to post certain things on Facebook."

To this end, Snyder tries to pick up the slack.

"I teach a media relations class to the recruits," Snyder says. "I've added social media to tell them that they're no longer anonymous. I ask how many people have Facebook accounts, and I tell them they have to think about if they post something and their local news media picks it up. There's no official social networking training, but I see it coming within the next year."

Shinder offers the following pointers when engaging in social networking: "Don't post pictures of yourself doing something embarrassing or illegal. Don't make derogatory comments about any race or group. Don't post comments that could be construed as sexually harassing, especially if you have co-workers or subordinates of the opposite gender as 'friends.' It's also probably a good idea not to get into passionate diatribes about agency politics."

It is also important to point out that your friends not only see what you post on your site, but also what your other friends post there. "That's another reason to separate your professional and personal lives by having more than one Facebook or MySpace account," asserts Shinder.

Most sites do let you set options regarding which of your friends can see what types of posts, and it's a good idea to become very well acquainted with how these tools work and use them.

Sam Walker, a retired professor and a former member of the National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union, suggests that a simple disclaimer by the employee may protect many officers from earning the ire of their departments.

In the absence of policies developed to specifically address social networks, many agencies have and will probably continue to flag their personnel under some generic catch-all: Conduct unbecoming a peace officer. But they will address it.

Curiously, none will come near to invoking the caveat most invoked in matters of law enforcement concern: Use common sense.

For in matters of social intercourse, there is little commonly agreed upon and what may be acceptable to one person or group may well be unacceptable–even offensive–to another.

In the meantime, it would appear that some agencies are hoping that by adopting more rigid postures, they might wear their employees down so that they'll take a note from the Gershwin song when it comes to posting to social networks and just call the whole thing off.

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Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

NCPD-RETIRED @ 1/15/2010 2:16 AM

It is not like it used to be. Some officers simply don't take pride in our profession. Those not doing so, you'll risk losing your million dollar career [30 years of pay + benefits + Retirement = about million] over an off-the-cuff comment posted on your space. On or Off Duty at the end of the day, we each should be acting impartially; exercising discretion; using only necessary force; and maintaining confidentiality, integrity, and a professional image at all times. It is PRIDE in what we do that becomes the legacy for future officers. It is PRIDE in what you do that ends your day knowing you did the right things today. Unlike going by the 'Spirit of the law' on the job, your DIGITAL conduct is now read like the black ink on the white page with no room for interpretation or discussion. If they read it on-line and think it is unprofessional, it must be so. No trial, no appeals. Once your face is plastered on the News you are ruined [Recall the Atlanta Bomber]. The media doesn't do follow-ups to say 'Hey we got it wrong, he's actually a good guy and here's the real facts now.....' what gets dropped out there remains there forever. As long as you are in this profession you are held to the standard of opinions and nothing else. It is someone's opinion that gets you promoted, it's someone's opinion about how you handled them that can get you fired; it's the Chief' opinion on how the agency is run. If you tend not to like other people's opinions you should re-evaluate your career goals.

sahi @ 3/23/2011 9:46 PM

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funchowk @ 6/19/2012 1:42 AM

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