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Top 10 social networking tips for cops

In the wake of the widely-known “Texas waitress” photos which led to the firing of one Midland County Deputy and the suspension of three others, a look at how online technology has impacted the world of the law enforcement officer is warranted. This is not a new occurrence. Recall the Hoboken, N.J., SWAT team disbanded following “racy” Hooters girl pictures bearing weaponry on police vehicles. By virtue of the Internet’s viral nature, everyone eventually saw the pictures in question.

As someone who oversees Basic Police Academies, currently in Ohio and previously in Florida, I have long advised students on the benefits of the wise use of an online persona. While some officers totally bypass any use of online sites in a bid to protect themselves, I view that as throwing the baby out with the bath water. I advocate a more controlled use of those outlets.

I personally make much use of technology having accounts on a variety of social networking Web sites including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Blogger, and Linkedin among others. I have for many years, including when I served as a police chief, with no negative consequences.

In this photo provided by the Midland County, (Texas) Sheriff, an unidentified waitress at Twin Peaks Restaurant and Bar posses for a photo in Round Rock, Texas, Aug. 10, 2009. (AP Photo)
In this photo provided by the Midland County, (Texas) Sheriff, an unidentified waitress at Twin Peaks Restaurant and Bar posses for a photo in Round Rock, Texas, Aug. 10, 2009. (AP Photo)

These are useful tools for personal and professional networking and communication, but like any tool — such as a firearm or a TASER — can be abused. It is the professional officer who knows how to use these technology tools responsibly and in accordance with departmental policies and community morals who gets the benefits. It’s the officer who ignores policies — and common sense — who gets in trouble.

Many officers have forfeited an otherwise promising career for a few moments of posting euphoria. While other folks may garner only a chuckle in response to their online adventures, a professional law enforcer is held to a higher standard than ordinary citizens. But bear in mind that even in the private sector, many an employee has been sent packing by an employer unhappy over some social networking misstep.

From the advent of digital photography to omnipresent social networks like Facebook, the phenomenal growth of technological innovation has had an incredible impact on many aspects of law enforcement. Here are some tips for using the new online social networking tools without sacrificing your career.

1) No gun glorification. While this may upset Second Amendment supporters out there, the reality is that a significant number of the public does not like to see a glorification of firearms in pictures of law enforcers. Quite a few officers have lost their jobs after posing with weaponry in a way perceived as offensive or too “warrior oriented.”

While the depiction of guns in the course of their normal scope and use is not problematic, aiming the gun at the camera seems to trigger the pink slip. Shots of officers engaged in their normal course of fire at the gun range have not appeared to bring about a backlash. Posing with weaponry, involving either the officer or (worse yet) a civilian, has historically been problematic for the employee.

2) No alcohol. Officers have also found themselves in the hot seat after posting pictures of them partying and drinking alcohol. Many agencies view this to be contrary to a professional image. Of even more concern is that sometimes others identified in the pictures turn out to be minors in possession of alcohol which opens up another can of issues.

3) Watch your comments. This is an important one. Posted comments on social networking sites are being dragged into legal proceedings especially when use of force is involved. Comments that imply the officer enjoys using force on people, especially certain groups of people, are being seized on by criminal defense and civil plaintiffs attorneys to show the officer had a pre disposition to be physical or has a documented bias against their client.

Be mindful that discussion boards and the like are a public written record of your communication. Like reports and radio dispatch conversations, they can be discovered and frame your actions in a context that you may not like. Much like reports, if you don’t want it dragged into the legal arena, don’t type it online.

4) Avoid bashing the department. Another area that has gotten some officers into trouble — the First Amendment freedom of speech not withstanding — are comments which bash the agency. Depending on how it’s framed, it could open you up to administrative charges and possibly civil liability. More and more bloggers and online posters are being held responsible for their critical speech online. Especially if it is later proved that the postings lack a factual basis and are intended to damage the target of the criticism.

At the very least, launching such a site or contributing to an existing Web site that bashes the agency does not endear you to the powers that be or position you as a “team player” ripe for promotion.

5) Restrict personal information. Much like we can use Facebook and the like as a tool to find people and research information, so can the bad guys. Be judicious in the posting of information and pictures. For example, some officers will not use pictures of their family members or going even further, of themselves. Others withhold their cell phone number.

6) Picture Choice. Make sure that the pictures that you do choose to post don’t have any of the aforementioned problem areas or have nudity. Many officers, including myself, have shirtless bodybuilding or fitness oriented photos online. That is not a problem. The topless woman drinking at the party with you exemplifies what is a problem.

7) Minimize status update complaints. In this year of economic contraction, there are many people waiting in line for your spot in the agency. Administrators know this. This goes back to number four above, but we’ve all seen the officers that post their status with complaints about the shift, their sergeant, or the job. Some supervisors, after reading such negatively tinged status updates, say, “OK, let so and so find another job if they are so unhappy here.”

While not every job is going to be great each and everyday, gripes should not be aired via status updates. The agency may be perfectly happy to find someone else that would appreciate them.

8) Highlight accomplishments. Many look to Facebook, Linkedin, and the like as electronic resumes. Take advantage of that and use it to highlight your professional accomplishments. Post pictures of you learning some new technique (being careful not to show scores or other information). Post status updates of that advanced training course you take.

9) Manage your privacy settings. While I have my online presence open to the public, many have privacy settings that restrict access to family and friends that you have predetermined. While not foolproof, the settings should keep most interlopers locked out of your pages.

10) When in doubt, leave it out. I have long coached academy students and officers to pretend that I am perched on their shoulder and watching what they are doing. In the same vein, they could have their mother hovering overhead. If you wouldn’t want us to see it or if either of us would be displeased with what is being contemplated to go online, it probably is not a good idea to upload it.

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