Mass. police chiefs criticize social media bill
The law would prohibit department heads from scouring candidates' personal social media accounts
By Kathleen McKiernan
BOSTON — Police recruits, watch your tweets.
The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association is slamming proposed legislation it says would limit the ability to give full background checks to recruits.
The law would prohibit department heads from scouring personal social media accounts. The group wants to be able to dig through social media profiles to help screen candidates and protect the public from those who could “tarnish the badge.”
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem of Newton, would block employers and educational institutions from requesting or forcing a student or employee to give access to their social media accounts. The bill passed in a 36-0 vote in the Senate on March 15.
The MCOPA said the bill handcuffs local chiefs and makes them unable to review a candidate’s social media for red flags like racist or homophobic posts.
It comes as more law enforcement officials are under scrutiny for social media posts.
Earlier this month, the state police suspended trooper Matthew Sheehan indefinitely without pay as officials investigate whether Sheehan wrote posts under the screen name “Big Irish” that disparaged minority communities and discussed the use of force on the job.
Last June, a Boston police patrolman, officer Joseph DeAngelo Jr., was suspended for six months without pay, with another six months probation, and was forced to undergo unconscious bias retraining after posting a racially charged video.
The chiefs association said social media posts can provide “a great deal of insight and information to law enforcement agencies during this initial hiring phase.”
Dudley police Chief Steven Wojnar said if chiefs can’t look at a candidate’s social media during the hiring process, it is a “disservice” to cities and towns, especially considering 88 percent of individuals between 18 and 29 — the prime hiring age for police departments — have some social media account.
“We want to find everything we can on an individual and make sure they are acceptable,” Wojnar told the Herald. “You’re looking at a situation where social media and the ability to view social media is extremely important in today’s world.”
Chelsea police Chief Brian Kyes said the Senate adopted a modified “watered-down” version of the bill that also doesn’t go far enough. It would only allow chiefs access to social media accounts if there are outstanding complaints of harassment.
“That qualified language kills our ability to conduct an adequate background check for someone who wants to become a police officer,” Kyes told the Herald. “Police chiefs need to ensure people coming into the police department have no red flags.”
Lenny Kesten, a lawyer and expert in employment litigation, called the proposal “terrible.”
“That is absurd,” Kesten said. “This information is information you want to know before hiring an officer, a schoolteacher or soccer coach. ... And the legislature wants employers to not look at it and wait until someone is shot or molested?”
Sen. Creem declined to comment.
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