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November 30, 2010
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Cops on the Internet: Make haste slowly

By PoliceOne Staff 

This is not your grandfather’s Facebook. Nor is Twitter the same as when I was a kid. Oh, how they have changed! The changes come so fast, it’s hard to keep up!

I imagine myself sitting on life’s sidelines, watching as technology plows its way into — and through — our daily lives. I recall as a kid, seeing my first Zenith ‘transistor’ radio. No tubes. It came on instantly. It was small enough to fit into the palm of our neighbor’s hand, yet produced a very big sound. I was smitten. That was circa 1960.

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Societally, we now seem to be chasing technology into tomorrow the way a tardy bus passenger tries to catch the bus as it pulls away from its stop. In some cases we have put our focus too much on the technology, instead of on the problem it promised to solve.

In plain, practical terms, we fail to see the real-life, practical, painful damage that is being caused as the techno-pursuit unfolds. People get hurt. Careers and relationships are ruined. That may not have been the intent, but that’s exactly what can — and too often does — happen.

Some Real-life Messes
Years ago, I had a buddy who was a sheriff’s deputy working mids. He was married, with two kids at home. He took a shine to one of the female dispatchers on his shift. The in-car computer was a very convenient (and private) way to exchange sexually explicit messages. The heat of the messages — and their frequency — increased over many months.

Ultimately, divorce papers were filed. Such a shame. The worse shame came when the soon-to-be ex-wife’s attorney sent a subpoena to the sheriff seeking a copy of all of her husband’s hot message exchanges with the dispatcher. Ooops.

There was a recent court case where the criminal defense lawyer sought — and obtained — complete records of cell phone logs and text messages sent to/from the arresting LEO on his personal cell phone. How, you ask? The lawyer argued that the LEO carried the cell phone when he was on duty. He occasionally used it to communicate with other officers or the bosses about work-related topics. Therefore, like a pocket notebook referenced on the witness stand, the judge decided it was subject to discovery. Everything. Not just the messages or calls related to the case. Ooops.

A few years ago, I was invited to a bachelor party for a fellow cop. The groom-to-be was quite young. The party was held at the local F.O.P. Hall. Good enough. Beer was flowing. Cards were playing. And (strangely enough), there were a couple of young ladies there to provide entertainment (that’s a different story altogether).

Well after midnight, a couple of the working crew showed up, parking their marked patrol cars behind the hall. In short order, the crowd migrated outside. The females, who could have been detained for indecent exposure, were splayed across the hood of each patrol car.

Before two shakes of a lamb’s tail, a couple of digital cameras appeared. I knew right then and there that we had a mixture which spelled trouble. My concerns were dismissed by the others.

The predictable series of events followed: embarrassing pictures, YouTube, and then the almost-certain discipline. It was discipline that could have been avoided. Ooops.

You don’t need to follow the cop community for very many days before you will learn of some cop, somewhere, trying to commit career suicide with a computer. I recall the cop who wrote on Facebook about how he finds great pleasure in arresting and taking black folks to jail. Ooops.

Then, there was the young cop who posed his girlfriend on the hood of his take-home patrol car in a skimpy bathing suit while she held an array of his duty weapons. She tried to keep a mean countenance. But, I don’t think that much mattered to this cop’s bosses. Ooops.

There was even a recent story about a hose-dragging EMT arriving at the scene of a horrific traffic crash. Using his cell phone, he took a picture of one of the deceased victims that was best described as gruesome. He sent it to someone by email, who subsequently sent it to two others, who sent it to two others, and the damn thing went viral. I’m told that his ass is still sore. Ooops.

I suppose the common message to all of these is this: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

The Worst Possible Case
There is a recent story about Lt. Dan Kromer of the Taylor (MI) Police auxiliary unit. He has served his community for twenty years.

On a Tuesday evening a few weeks ago, Lt. Kromer was rendering aid to a stranded motorist on a very busy freeway on Detroit’s west side. He was on the shoulder of the road when another drive hit the lieutenant so hard as to kill him instantly and make any attempt at CPR futile. The driver who killed Kromer drove away speedily. (He was later apprehended)

Taylor PD had difficulty reaching Kromer’s wife — she was out of town. Mrs. Kromer would learn that she had become a widow when she read it on the Facebook page of an officer from a neighboring agency.

Could you imagine your wife (or husband) learning that they had been widowed on Facebook? I cannot.

How Did We Get Here?
In part, it’s a generational thing. No, I’m not making excuses.

Today’s under-40 population largely grew up with a mouse and keyboard in their hands. My son is 31. I remember when he was five and had his first Apple IIe. While playing with it one day, he casually looked up at me and said, “What kind of computer did you have when you were a kid, Daddy?”

Ahem.

Young people today accept technology and its current iterations as something that’s always been part of their lives. It is not an intrusion but rather, an integral part. It is blended into their thought processes. They feel a huge void when it is absent.

Dinosaurs like me were introduced to their first computers well into their adult years. We remember what it was like to have just one phone in the house. It had a cord and was probably in the kitchen. Hell, it might have even been on a party line.

We remember life without TV and what a treat it was on Sunday to watch one of the few programs broadcast in color on NBC.

Many of that generation are the ones at the top of the food chain in cop shops today. Tell them that the computer is now the most used tool a patrol officer has at his disposal and they will probably think you’re nuts (whether or not they say it out loud). They bemoan the young kids who only seem to find bad guys after running their tag through the computer.

To varying degrees, folks of my vintage still internalize the computer and technology as an ‘intrusion’ into an otherwise ‘natural’ lifestyle. To us, it remains a foreign device.

The Generational Divide
There are some statistics out reporting that the average teenage girl sends thousands of text messages every month. EVERY MONTH? I haven’t sent a thousand text messages in my entire life.

The young folks have largely internalized the notion that the social networking media is their exclusive sandbox. There is Myspace, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter — just to name a few. And, for a very long time, these places were considered taboo by the oldsters among us.

It was seen sort of like an electronic Etch-A-Sketch. Anyone could put something out there. With a few clicks of the mouse, it could be gone. And, it was just a toy. A place to play in the most irresponsible and non-permanent of ways. It was like building a sandcastle on the beach, near the water, at low tide. Soon enough, there wouldn’t be a trace.

Why youngsters were reported to have distributed compromising pictures of themselves with little regard or concern for the long-term impact it might have. They call it, “sexting.” We now have legislators who are foolishly trying to write laws to protect immature morons from foolish behaviors that typically only have a negative impact on the sender. What fools.

Old times are no more.

First, we found out that this stuff is there forever. Ooops.

Then, sexting demonstrated that once I hit SEND, I cannot control where my picture will go after that. My recipients can choose to send it to anyone and everyone they know. No matter how much I might protest. Ooops, again.

There have been horrible stories recently about a roommate who took pictures of his buddy having sex with another guy. Cyber-bullying, extreme embarrassment, and ultimately a suicide followed. Ooops in the worst form.

What Can We Learn?
Social media, like Facebook, is no longer a toy. It is a very real form of communication among vast numbers of our fellow citizens. It has come of age. Whether we saw it coming or not, it’s here now, and it must be given its due!

Once it’s out there on the web, it’s probably there forever. If you have any other notion, forget it. Think before you hit send because bad judgment may last until you die. After you die, actually, but then it becomes someone else’s problem. Like you kids for example...

If you’re a dinosaur, resist knee-jerk responses. I once overheard a sheriff complaining about seeing his young deputies paying too much attention to their phones or computers while driving. He directed staff to write a policy forbidding the use of either when the car is in motion. Uh-huh, sure.

Turning off all the computers won’t work either. Years ago, when Detroit PD first got in-car radios from Motorola, one of their cops was involved in a crash while using the radio. The ensuing policy: pull over to the curb before using the radio. You and I both know how that worked out for them.

Don’t write stupid rules that are bound to fail right out of the chute.

What Can We Do?
Encourage the use of technology that is considered, careful and deliberate. Remind your cops that it is vital to engage the brain before firing up the technology. Show them how. Be an example. Remind them often and reward good performance.

Technology is not going away. It will only grow to surround us more than even today. Using it wisely goes right to the heart of officer safety.

After all, when it’s all said and done, it comes down to saving just one life.



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