From time to time, there are incidents that officers get into off duty that can get them fired. Sometimes these incidents make the headlines and other times they don't. After every such incident there are tales of at least one officer in another department who has done something far worse and did not get sacked. So before you say this is not fair, let me remind you. There is nothing fair in police work; the fair is where you take your children in the fall.
Media, the Internet, and the Truth
First of all, whatever you have read about the incident may not be totally true. Most of the time we are not told the complete story behind a lurid news story. Such is often the case in off-duty police scandals that lead to an officer's termination. Maybe there were more photos that were shared with the internal affairs investigator that the media did not publish. Maybe this was an officer's last chance, his or her disciplinary luck had run out and the public will never know all of the truth.
You also need to understand the moral climate of your department and your community? For officers in larger departments with say triple figures of sworn staff, you will have immense autonomy. You are just another blue fish in the sea. Most of the time, officers at larger departments will get away with more shenanigans than their counterparts at smaller departments could ever dream of. The smaller agency often is in a smaller town or rural county and everybody knows everybody. You might as well live in the uniform for everyone knows you are a cop. Also know your area of operation, if it is in the Bible Belt you may not have a liberal public coming to your support in some actions.
Know the Policies
I know of departments that have no facial hair policy and others that allow beards. Some have no visible tattoos and some have officers sporting ink. Know your department and how it balances with your jurisdiction. Off-duty, you better know what places to avoid.
Fully understand your policies and how they can apply to you. Off-duty actions are sometimes subjective. If you have a take home vehicle, make sure you read and understand the policy. If the policy states that you are to be on the clock, in uniform or stipulates specifically approved uses, read and heed them.
Avoid Those Places
There have been numerous officers brought down by cars parked where there is no immediate excuse and photos taken. I do not want to hear about Photoshop; you know what I am talking about. Your car is an advertisement of acceptance if it is in the wrong place, sending the wrong message.
Some departments have had unwritten but known off limits lists of establishments. In other words, if it is not a police event, you have no business being there. However, if you know it is a seedy joint, I would not recommend visiting. Face it, if thugs frequent there you will get into something you could regret.
I suggest that you ask around about the safe ports for off-duty entertainment. If that fails and you are thinking about going there, call a trusted veteran officer and ask him/her for an opinion.
Stay Away from Bad Folks
Most departments have polices regarding the association with known criminals. So if you like posing and grinning with a local outlaw motorcycle gang (OMG) member, wake up and smell the coffee. I understand there are many officers who are recreational motorcycle riders. However, if your local event becomes a hangout for three patch OMGs, it is time to leave. Additionally, if you have a family member that is a street gang member notify your supervisor. Most departments may not allow your frequent association.
There are some events you just need to leave alone. I don't care if they are raising money for whatever charity, if a back splash on your reputation can happen, it will. Many criminal enterprises make donations and appearances to freshen up their images; don't be a part of this trap.
Smile for the Facebook
Here is a reality check. We live in very photo-savvy times; there are mobile phones with cameras, citizens taking action photos for local news, street surveillance cameras, and on-board car cameras. So act as if you are always being filmed, on and off-duty.
Social media is the latest front on which officers are getting hung up. Set your privacy settings high. Be extremely careful whom you befriend, and watch the photos you post. Your pals may see them as fine, but one person can and will bring it out to haunt you later. Reconsider all chats, postings, and photos and be ready to defend them.
Bottom line: Think about what you are doing? Give it a reality check and see how you can defend your actions or presence to your boss if something should occur. If you can't come up with at least three good reasons, stay home.
And remember this: Boring and employed is better than unemployed and exciting.