According to a September 2011 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), at least 56 percent of US law enforcement agencies using social media have solved crimes with the help of social media (thanks in part, no doubt, to citizen vigilance and criminal stupidity). Additionally, 53.1 percent of the agencies using social media said doing so has helped improve their community relations.
Increasingly, however, social networking has been getting individual officers into trouble.
Recently, a sheriff's deputy in Walton County, Ga., has made headlines over an 11-year-old photograph posted on Facebook and MySpace. In the photograph, the deputy (an officer with a municipal police department at the time) has his hands on the buttocks of a female porn star. The porn star is nude from the waist down, bent over, and leaning into a patrol car. The deputy now faces an investigation and could lose his job.
Though the deputy did not upload the photograph himself, the story has highlighted numerous other cases from the past few years of officers misbehaving online.
- In November, an Orange, N.J., police officer was fired after reportedly posting profane and racist tweets criticizing the township.
- In September, NYPD officers -- protesting having to work detail for New York City's annual West Indian Day Parade -- created and participated in a Facebook Group rife with offensive, racially charged comments. (We've discussed this group before.) A man arrested at the parade on weapons charges produced 70 pages of the Group's activity at his trial. He was acquitted, and the participating officers became subjects of an Internal Affairs investigation and public condemnation.
- In 2009, a New York man charged with unlawful gun possession claimed that the arresting officer beat him, broke three of his ribs, and planted the gun on him. Evidence showed that the day before the arrest, the arresting officer had described his mood as "devious" on MySpace, and that a few weeks before, the officer posted on Facebook that he was "watching Training Day to brush up on proper police procedure." (He was referring to the 2001 film about a crooked detective.) The trial resulted in an acquittal.
Other notorious examples of bad social media behavior have included instances of (so-called) peace officers bragging about beating people up, posting inappropriate pictures of themselves, and sharing information that compromised law enforcement activity. Incidents like these have risen exponentially over the past few years.
Consequently, many police departments have begun instituting social media policies governing officer behavior online. For instance, the Albuquerque Police Department implemented a policy and investigated all its officers' social media activity after a particularly embarrassing incident a year ago. An APD officer who had shot and killed a suspect made headlines when local news media discovered that, on his Facebook profile, the officer had listed his occupation as "human waste disposal."
The IACP reports that 48.6 percent of US law enforcement agencies had social media policies in September, while 22.1 percent were in the process of creating one. To help other agencies get started, the IACP offers a model social media policy on its Website.
Regulating employees' personal social media behavior can be tricky, because some content may be deemed protected union activity under the First Amendment. Still, recent history has demonstrated that law enforcement agencies desperately need social media planning and training. Otherwise, a "socially errant" officer may cause a PR disaster, open an agency up to civil liability, or threaten peace and justice by compromising a case or sharing sensitive information that puts a fellow officer or an innocent civilian in harm's way.
Of course, some libertarians might argue that it's best just to let indiscreet peace officers post to social media unfettered -- letting society judge the officers' fitness for their jobs. Either way, law enforcement officers engage in the public world of social media at their own risk -- social media policy or no.
— Joe Stanganelli is a writer, attorney, and communications consultant. He is also principal and founding attorney of Beacon Hill Law in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.