The Perils and Pitfalls for Police Officers Posting on Social Media

An organization recently made available to the media a significant database of social media posts—that they deem to be potentially offensive—from thousands of officers from places such as Philadelphia, Dallas, Phoenix, St. Louis, and elsewhere. Internal investigations have been launched at several of those agencies. Here's why cops need to use social media cautiously.

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Late last week, news broke that a Philadelphia-based organization has been quietly collecting social media posts from current and former officers that the organization deems to be potentially offensive.

For two years, the group collected—and has now published—social media posts from officers in Philadelphia, Dallas, Phoenix, St. Louis, and elsewhere.

Many of those agencies have subsequently launched extensive internal investigations into the online behavior of their officers.

The group—dubbed the Plain View Project—made available to the media a massive database of social media posts from thousands of officers. The database entries include the name of the officers, the posts themselves, the officers' agency, badge number, and even their salary.

The organization said on its website, "We present these posts and comments because we believe that they could undermine public trust and confidence in our police. In our view, people who are subject to decisions made by law enforcement may fairly question whether these online statements about race, religion, ethnicity and the acceptability of violent policing—among other topics—inform officers’ on-the-job behaviors and choices."

The group continued, "To be clear, our concern is not whether these posts and comments are protected by the First Amendment. Rather, we believe that because fairness, equal treatment, and integrity are essential to the legitimacy of policing, these posts and comments should be part of a national dialogue about police."

Let's unpack some of what the group discovered—and subsequently disclosed—and what it all means for cops going forward.

Cringe Worthy

I spent more than two hours going through as much of the database as two hours of research would allow.

I'm going to be brutally honest.

A reasonable argument can be made that some of the posts published by the Plain View Project could be construed as offensive, particularly to groups of people who are already pre-disposed to dislike—or even despise—the police.

I'm about as pro-cop as any civilian could be, but I cringed many times as I surfed around the database, thinking to myself, "Why would you post that? What—in the name of all of that is Holy—made you think that comment was not going to have repercussions?"

To be fair, there were also many items in the database that were totally inoffensive and innocuous—in fact, as a guy who has spent more than a decade around cops, I can say I truly appreciate some of the humor.

But on balance, all too many posts released by this group were ill-advised to say the least.

The posts in the database also include the comments made by officers' friends, and some of those comments were often far more questionable than the original meme, picture, video, or link.

The term, "That escalated quickly" entered my mind times while reading the comments.

To be fair, the overwhelming majority of police officers use social media in a calm and collected manner, posting fun news about family or life events and staying well clear of anything even vaguely controversial.

I know this because I have hundreds of law enforcement friends on Facebook.

Some I've met in person, and others—well, we've been connected by virtue of our mutual friends.

I can count on one hand the number of posts my police officer friends on Facebook said something that might make it into the Plain View Project's database. Maybe even just two fingers.

The officers in the recent release of this database are a tiny fraction of the 800,000+ police officers in America.

Make note of that.

Dial it Down

Okay, let's get down to the bare bones of this thing.

You have a First Amendment right to free speech.

We all do, and in this column I'm exercising mine.

However, there is nothing in the Constitution of the United States of America that guarantees a long and successful career in law enforcement.

Officers can be—and in altogether too many cases, have been—fired for something they said or a picture they posted on the Internet during their off hours.

Further, defense attorneys have gotten wise to investigating the social media posts of arresting officers, as have plaintiffs' attorneys in civil cases.

Any racist, sexist, homophobic, or misogynistic rant posted at three in the morning could very well allow a guilty suspect to walk free, or a party in a lawsuit against you and/or your agency to pocket a fistful of dollars.

The general rule of thumb is this: if you wouldn't say it while standing in line at the coffee shop or working foot patrol in the local business district, don't say it online.

Just don't.

If something outrageous comes across the transom, type out an email to a friend, read it, and then delete it before sending.

The decision to post something to social media is yours.

Say what you will.

But know that the consequences of doing so could be substantial.

And remember, the Internet is PERMANENT. Once you hit "share" or "like" or whatever else, it's part of a permanent set of footprints you've left in the cyber sand.

And it's discoverable.

Facebook says that deleted posts are no longer retained by the company, but all it takes is a watchdog group or an interested citizen to get a screen grab.

Positive Posts

Let's briefly examine how police can use social media in a positive way.

IACP's 2015 Social Media Survey revealed that 96 percent of responding agencies used social media in some capacity.

Some do it better than others.

If your agency is going to do social media, you have to do it correctly. There are numerous model policies you can access and follow. Or simply go online and look at other agencies for ideas.

If you have someone devoted to maintaining your social media posts, you can probably keep up a pretty substantial rate of posting and replying to citizens' comments—some agency pages that I follow post something nearly every hour. Other agencies with no dedicated social media team might post just once a day. The key is to know the right rate of posting for your department and stick to it.

Unexpectedly going silent is not a good look—it can lead to suspicion and speculation on the part of the public.

Tell good stories. I get a lot of news leads from social media posts from departments that never make it into the mainstream media.

Like when the divers with the Putnam County (FL) Sheriff's Office were conducting training on a local river and decided to turn that time in the water into an opportunity to pull a large haul of trash from the river bed.

Or when the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department posted a video of an officer playing pick-up basketball with a group of young people at a local apartment complex.

There are myriad other examples of how agencies have used social media to engage with the public in a positive way.

Cops in America do incredible things every day.

Tell your story.

And if you're on FB, send me a "friend request."

About the Author
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