A few years ago I was quietly sitting in the den watching a football game and checking the time on the turkey cooking in the oven when I heard my kids and my wife, the Sarge, laughing in the other room. We were together for the holidays and at first I thought it was the innocent laughter of seasonal cheer and a few beers; I was wrong. Shortly after that uproar I was commanded to view their handiwork, a new Facebook page devoted to my alter ego, J.D. "Buck" Savage.
I had to admit that it was well done and we posted a couple of law enforcement-oriented things and went about making the rest of the day a turkey-filled football party. I didn't give the project a moment's thought; after all, how much work could one simple Facebook page be?
Well, it turns out maintaining a fan page with thousands of "Likes" in a profession like crime fighting can become quite a project. It is fun to see the reaction to a new article, or a photo at a seminar, or a funny post such as the one of the K-9 sitting in a patrol car with the caption "Saw bad guy, bit same!" But does the public find it funny?
We like to think our social media posts are our little inside jokes, and that the public doesn't get a say. But more and more, after a critical incident the news media (cue the Darth Vader music from "Star Wars") immediately races to scour the various forms of communication we have used to expose our deepest thoughts. A couple of years ago I closed an otherwise positive conference on police uses of social media with a section I called "You bet your badge," where I showed various postings on Twitter and Facebook that contained job-threatening sayings, quotes, and pictures. Sadly, some were right off of my own sites.
Go to my Facebook page and you will see pictures of me with some crime fighters in Winnemucca, or my dog sleeping as I ramble on at a corrections conference in South Dakota, or the Sarge and me quaffing a brew after a Wisconsin talk. You will also see sad postings about the fallen and positive postings, and I like to celebrate a "Not Today!" moment when a warrior wins a battle against an evildoer. There's no fair and balanced here; I am unabashedly pro-police.
But what you will also find there if you read people's comments is that some of my friends have absolutely no filter on what they are willing to share with the world. I have good amigos who think every thought they have should be shared, and the day they win a gunfight I pray the media doesn't look them up and find their online comments.
It's OK to comment on things you are concerned about and to share a fun social moment. But, gang, think before you post. If you shot somebody tomorrow, how would the post you put up today about wishing they issued tags for "dirt bags" read in the mind of Miss Mary Poppins sitting at her breakfast table?
If your last 20 posts are pictures of you with some form of intoxicating beverage or acting the fool in uniform, what could Anderson Cooper do with that? "But, but," you say, "this is just a fun form of communicating with each other." Yes, it is, but the media loves to play the "gotcha" game, and social media has become a solid resource for negative material.
After a shooting the media won't report your positive postings about the Special Olympics Torch Run, or the charity football game against the firefighters, or the joy you felt when your CPR worked and that little drowning victim coughed water in your face, splashing away your tears. But the graphic you posted on your page that you thought was funny, with the caption, "Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out!" will be on the front page of the paper and in the first column on the Drudge Report.
So friends, here is the bottom line: Before you post that picture, that funny saying, that comment, think about how the public will perceive it. We like to think we are a close community and we can talk amongst ourselves online, but social media is not like any form of communication we have ever known. And it provides us with just one more way to play that terrible game, You Bet Your Badge!
Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Bu ck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.