Social Media and how it affects our
Membership as Law Enforcement Officers
We live in times where if you are not on Facebook,
Twitter, Pinterest, or any other social media site, you
feel like you are being left out of society. Our friends
and family all use these social media sites as their
primary means of communication. The question is
whether or not we, as law enforcement officers, should
be using these sites as well. Many law enforcement
officers choose to use these sites, but what consequences
could result from their use?
It is fun to find old friends from high school or college and
reminisce about the old times. But what if the old times
involved activity that was on the risque side? What if that
activity involved potentially illegal activity? Should you be
discussing these activities in front of the world, for all to see?
Should there be old, or in some cases, recent pictures of you
engaging in activities that your employer may not approve of?
It is also fun to discuss politics and other controversial topics.
But what if your opinions are detrimental to the efficient
operation of your department? What if your opinions blur the
line between private citizen and police officer?
Highlighting your child's sporting event or dance recital is also
fun to show our family and friends that we do not see that often.
How many of us like to brag about Johnny's home run at the local
Little League game? It leads to the question of how many of us
know how to take advantage of all of the privacy options that these
social media sites offer? How many of us know that if someone else
"tags" you in a photo that is not on your page that it shows up for
the entire world to see, even if your page is private?
These are all questions that we can be faced with if we participate
in social media as law enforcement officers. Social media sites have
caused law enforcement officers across the country their jobs and in
some cases their lives. We really need to break this down into two
categories: 1) Your employment safety, and 2) Your personal safety
Being on the Internet for all to see can provide hours of enjoyment.
If you have a hobby, or interest, you can find it on the Net. Social
media sites have brought many people together with a similar
community of interest that may never have communicated in the
past. Masscop members have their website and blog that they can
refer to for information. One step beyond that is social media. Social
media is the ever growing means of communicating information.
There are few people that do not subscribe to some form of social
media. As law enforcement officers you have to consider a number
of things that regular citizens do not. The first question you have to
ask is: "Is what I am putting out to the masses going to get me
fired?" This is a real possibility in today's world. Virtually every
single time this conversation comes up in law enforcement circles,
the first word out of the police officer's mouth is "I have my right
to First Amendment speech". Is this true? Do you have an unfettered
right to First Amendment speech as an employee of the government?
The answer to the question is :NO YOU DO NOT, ON AND OFF DUTY.
There have been a couple of cases from the US Supreme Court that
have given us some guidelines to follow. The first is Garcetti v. Ceballos
547 U.S. 410 (2006). In Garcetti, the court looked to determine if the
actions of an assistant ADA who wrote a memo that was controversial,
was protected under the First Amendment. In that case they look to an
older case Pickering v. Board of Ed. of Township High School Dist. 205,
Will Cty., 391 U. S. 563 (1968). The Pickering case included an analysis
to determine whether or not a public employee has protection under the
First Amendment. The analysis was "to arrive at a balance between the
interests of the teacher, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of
public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting
the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees"
id, at 586. The analysis involves a three prong test: 1) Are you acting as
a citizen? 2) Are you commenting on matters of public concern? 3) then
lastly, you compare
the balance of the speech against the interest of the employer in
promoting the efficiency of the operation. In the Garcetti case they
determined that the ADA was acting as a public employee and not as
a citizen. While engaging in speech that is considered a result of your
employment, you do not meet the first prong of the test and therefore
not protected by the First Amendment. In the next case, which is
San Diego v. Roe, 543 U.S. 77 (2004), the court examined a matter
where a police officer was terminated for selling sexually explicit video
tapes of himself on Ebay. He was easily identified as a police officer,
because in addition to selling the sexually explicit videos, he also sold
police equipment and San Diego Police uniforms. His Ebay ID stated he
was a law enforcement officer. The court determined that in this case,
although the actions of the officer were done as a private citizen, they
did not meet the second prong of the test in Pickering, which is that the
sexually explicit material did not rise to the level of "public concern".
Therefore the discipline for violation of several department rules and
regulations was upheld and not considered protected under the First
There have been a number of cases around the country where police
officers have been targeted by someone they have dealt with on the street.
Retaliation for arrests has become ever more popular in today's society.
One of the easiest ways for bad guys to find us is the Internet. One of
the biggest ironies is that most police officers pay to maintain an unlisted
phone number, yet also put their most personal information on Facebook.
It is not difficult to find people via the Internet and it does not make too
much sense for us to provide that information to the bad guys. Way too many
police officers identify themselves as police officers on their Facebook pages,
with some of them having their profile picture in uniform. I know people
personally who maintain pages like this. Pictures of your family and
information that could lead the bad guy to your house, places you frequent,
or most importantly your children's schools, or other places they frequent,
should not be put out there for everyone to see. Past offenders have located
people via their Facebook pages, found them, and killed them in cold blood.
We do not want to see any harm coming to our members and therefore we
would urge you not to put this information out on the Internet.
We have chosen our professions because we like what we do. We knew that
this profession would come with some limitations. We knew that our lives
would change in some ways in order to ensure our safety and quality of life.
For some reason a lot of law enforcement officers do not think that social media
falls into this category. Many officers become somewhat indignant when it comes
to what they believe they can put on their social media sites. I have even heard
people say "they cannot tell me what I can put on my site when I am not at work".
Hopefully after reading this you will understand that you can be disciplined for
department rules and regulations for your conduct inside and outside of work as
it relates to social media. Please consider everything you put online to be read by
everyone in the world. There has never been a truer statement than one that was
told to me in the academy: "Never do anything that you would not want on the
front page of the local newspaper." Remember that you are not anonymous online,
especially on your social media site. Use it to keep in touch with family and friends,
but use the privacy protections available and ALWAYS be cognizant of what you are
putting out to the masses. It could mean the difference between keeping your job
and losing it.