A clear need to revise department social media policies
Thursday, May 19, 2016
There is too much negative publicity surrounding law enforcement agencies today, and missteps over social media are the last thing they should be faced with. But the recent federal lawsuit filed against the Baltimore Police Department and its commissioner shows us otherwise.
We live in a digital world, in a world of instant communications and, of course, a world dominated by social media. What can be a tool to help departments mend their community relations has instead become tool of inconvenience. The problem is not social media per se, but the lack of clarity in social media guidelines that could be easily followed by officials.
Lt. Victor Gearhart of the Baltimore PD has been in the news consistently over the past few months due to the heated Twitter arguments he had with local activists on issues affecting Baltimore. He also railed against the State's Attorney and her husband after the infamous Freddie Gray trial.
When he was reassigned to an overnight security detail, Gearhart saw the move as undermining this First Amendment rights and filed a lawsuit against the department. In the civil lawsuit, he pointed out that the department's social media policy is major problem for all officers as it is "overbroad, vague and otherwise unconstitutional."
Many officials have deemed Gearhart's tweets as a personal attack on the activists while others have been embarrassed by his lack of restraint. At a time when the department is reeling under negative publicity and desperately trying to mend its tattered community relations, neither the social media fallout nor the lawsuit are going to help.
Shortly Gearhart's social media warfare, the department as well as the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 (which is now backing him) disavowed his actions and maintained a public distance. Gearhart himself has maintained that his tweets were his personal opinions, and he never once represented the department. So his reassignment, he claims, is as illegal as "prior restraint" on speech.
Both Gearhart and the FOP have asked the court to rule that the department's social media policy is unconstitutional. The five-page policy was issued by the department in November, prohibiting members from posting any discriminatory, racist, sexist or violent comments, any kind of bias or inappropriate content that does not comply with BPD's mission and effectiveness.
It's easy to see why there is confusion and perhaps the basis for the lawsuit. The verbosity is as familiar as the thousands of legal documents we refer to, but it is does not clarify what actually needs to be done. This disturbing lack of clarity exists in the basic emails rules and communication etiquette as well.
In fact, the resignation of a top Los Angeles County sheriff's official shows how this is affecting all law enforcement agencies, across regions. The official had sent a series of emails years ago, mocking minorities in his past job.
In another incident, San Francisco's police chief released some transcripts that were shared among three California law enforcement officers. These messages were not just discriminatory or derogatory toward minorities but also threatening at times. Elsewhere, in Minnesota, one officer had to resign and another placed on leave after their controversial Facebook posts were made public.
Whether it's email or social media posts, officers have to understand that messages have a way of getting public, even emails. Law enforcement agencies are always under constant scrutiny, now more than ever. With social media as an intrinsic part of our lives, this is an elephant we don't want in the room.
Departments need strict yet easily discernible rules and etiquette for email social media. While derogatory messages can cost officers their taxpayer-funded jobs, they can also cause serious damage for the department's image. It is therefore imperative that police and other law enforcement agencies revise and redraft any outdated communications policies.
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