Social media and police: Do your officers know what is appropriate?
Thursday, May 05, 2016
The use of social media in the workplace has gained significant attention lately with people losing their jobs or being demoted because of their online activity. Employers are creating social media policies to reduce the number of problems and create legal standing for the company when a situation does occur.
However, there are certain industries where creating a social media policy isn't straightforward, like law enforcement.
From police departments using social media to identify potential criminal activity to officers posting about their personal lives, social media has intertwined itself in all parts of law enforcement. While these social media activities seem beneficial, there is another side — one that can jeopardize a single officer or an entire department.
To maintain a safe environment for everyone in your department, a social media policy should be created specifically for your department. Do not use a fill-in-the-blank form you find online.
You need a policy that aligns with your employee handbook and code of conduct, and leaves little room for interpretation. In addition, your social media policy should have two parts: one part for the department's social media presence and one part for personal social media accounts.
Part 1: Department social media accounts
A social media account for the department serves many purposes: promoting the department, issuing alerts to the community, investigating a case, preventing potential criminal activities and improving police-community relations. While this seems like a great tool, there can also be serious repercussions if not used properly.
The integrity and credibility of your department is vital, and one wrong word placed on your social media account can reduce your integrity and credibility to that of just another criminal in the minds of your community. Your mission, ethics and stance must always be carried through to every post, every share, every like.
So, what should be included in your social media policy to promote a positive social media presence?
1. Create a social media manager position. If your department has a social media account, you shouldn't give access to all individuals in the department. If everyone has access and an issue arises, it can be difficult to determine who was responsible. Depending on the size of your department, select one or two employees who will be responsible for managing the social media accounts.
2. Allow all officers to "create" posts. While the social media manager is the only person with access to the accounts, others in the department can still create a post. If an officer sees or does something that deserves recognition, he can document it with a photo or video and send it to the social media manager for posting. At this point, the social media manager determines whether the post is acceptable and follows the department's policies.
3. Clearly outline what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. This is the tricky part. A policy that states, "Obscene images are restricted," is not clear. What is obscene? You need to state what exactly your department considers obscene. It's time to get specific. At the same time, your social media policy should not be so long that your officers need to take time off to read it, so don't write a book. A bulleted list is a great way to provide this information — it is easy to read and easy to compile.
The social media policy for department accounts is necessary to maintain the right image and to make people accountable. However, social media policies for officers' personal accounts are much more in-depth — and controversial.
Part 2: Personal social media accounts
If an officer is off duty, does he have the right to post whatever he wants on his personal Facebook page? That's the question departments nationwide are facing. A post from a police officer that contradicts a department policy could cause an uproar in the department. A post with derogatory words could cause an uproar in the community.
So, can a department terminate an officer because of posts like this?
Many people reference freedom of speech as opposition to this; however, when an officer takes the oath, certain things change.
"As an officer, your life changes once you put on the uniform and badge," according to CriminalJusticeDegree.com. "You cannot afford to be reckless with your personal life and often times you may lose friends or have to adjust your personal choices to meet policy requirements. Police culture and conduct standards are somewhat restrictive and blend into personal actions. One such lifestyle restriction is tied to one's personal social media accounts."
One of the first things your department should do is promote basic online safety. Here are a few things to remind your officers of:
1. Passwords are critical. It might seem minuscule, but if people gain access to your social media account using your password, they can post whatever they want and can obtain any personal information you have stored in your account. You should have a strong password — don't use the same password for all of your accounts, use numbers and letters, and change it often.
2. Utilize security settings. Even though social media is for "public" communication, you want to be as private as possible. Set your security settings to the highest possible level so you have the most control over who sees your posts.
3. Don't accept unknown friend requests. If you don't know the person, don't accept the request. Keep an eye on your friends, too. If you notice something fishy with someone's account, consider removing him/her from your friends list.
Next, create a detailed department policy. This should leave little room for interpretation and offer your officers peace of mind knowing they have a policy that protects them. The policy isn't designed just to protect the department, it should protect the officers as well.
Here are a few considerations when creating your department's social media policy:
1. Don't post about the department on personal accounts. Details about cases, information about department events, pictures of officers on duty, pictures of officers in uniform (even if off duty), etc. should only be placed on the department's social media page. Even though you might not see an issue with an officer posting a picture of himself off duty in his uniform, it leaves too much room for interpretation. It's easiest to just restrict it all for clarity. Keep work and life separate.
2. Don't post anything that contradicts the department. Everyone has freedom of speech, but you also have a duty to serve your community. Contradicting your own police department can cause the community to lose trust and respect, resulting in police-community issues. The best way to make this clear is to utilize other department regulations and policies. Reference your code of conduct or your employee handbook. Make everything work together to create a cohesive set of guidelines. The more consistency you have, the more likely the policy will hold up and support your department.
3. Stay off social media while on duty. Officers on duty should not be accessing their personal social media accounts. If something occurs that warrants social media usage, it should be on the department's page, not their own. In addition, it will prevent controversy.
Be cautious, though, when drafting your social media policy. Police officers still do have basic rights, and impeding on these rights will land your department in hot water. One thing to pay close attention to is Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees employees "the right to self-organization, to form, join or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection," according to the National Labor Relations Board.
With social media playing such a huge role in the lives of police officers, you need to have a policy that protects everyone involved. Take the time to create your own policy based on the needs of your department — and incorporate your department's mission and values within that policy. The more in-depth your policy goes, the more confident you and your officers will be when using social media accounts.
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