There are nearly 3.5 billion active social media users–almost half the world’s population! With social media a seemingly integral part of our society, it’s tempting to not think twice about using it. For law enforcement officers, this is flawed thinking. Posts on Facebook and Twitter and even messaging platforms continue to cause trouble for members of law enforcement. The headlines are littered with officers being fired, asked to resign or otherwise disciplined for their online activity. It’s safe to say many more officers’ careers end due to inappropriate social media use than violence in the line of duty.
The closer you associate yourself with your position or agency, the more scrutiny you will face.
Following are five considerations for law enforcement use of social media:
- All posts can become a safety risk: Even if your public profile seems “locked down,” consider what information would be available in the event your account is hacked. Also, your friends list or followers are not the only people monitoring your activity. Due to the web of connections on social media, people have begun tracking officers’ whereabouts based on their posting history. They can easily capture information based on photos with geotags and posts revealing your schedule or location. Additionally, posts that contain political views, off-color jokes, content mocking victims or suspects, or on-duty “trophy photos” can easily be shared outside your immediate network without you knowing.
- Social media activity is used to attack officer credibility. Plaintiff’s attorneys often use posts and messages as “evidence” to imply questionable character by law enforcement officers. The closer you associate yourself with your position or agency, the more scrutiny you will face. Anything you post can and will be used against you as attorneys are attentive in tracking your online trail. Consider how a post could be interpreted when shown in federal court or revealed to a jury.
- Privacy protection is limited: If you share something on the internet, you should assume anyone could see it – privacy settings don’t necessarily limit who can see your posts. Posts marked “private” can still be seen if an employer gains access to your account. Some states provide absolute protection (MD Labor and Empl. Code §3-712), while others allow employer access for work-related misconduct investigations (CA Labor Code §980). Employers can demand access to employer-owned devices as decided in Ontario v. Quan, which states if an employer provides the device, they’re allowed access to it. Your personal device and conversations are equally at risk for discovery. If you discuss anything of work-related nature on your personal device, it can become subject to full disclosure. Think twice before sharing information with other officers.
- Don’t count on the First Amendment to protect you: The courts consider several key points when examining social media use by law enforcement. First, are you acting as a private person or public employee? If there is a way to link you back to your job, the court is more likely to limit how you can communicate as a private person. Next, are you talking about a matter of public concern such as whistleblowing or is it an issue of internal, agency gripe? The court is less likely to protect personal grievances. Lastly, the court can deny protection if your communication is disruptive to the mission of the department, such as an officer indicating prejudice against a protected class of people.
- Enact guidelines for agency social media pages: While social media pages can act as an open forum and two-way link to a dialogue with the community, they are also subject to abuse. Scammers are now visiting agency pages to post questionable content, then threaten litigations when the content is removed or the user is banned from the page. Don’t fall for it! To avoid this situation, post clear terms and conditions on your page and apply restrictions equally among offending users.
Bottom line: While you may not be able to avoid social media all together, it’s essential to use it cautiously. Think before you post!