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Law Enforcement Social Media PoliciesResearch Paper

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Policy Development

Law enforcement executives face significant challenges with respect to the development of social media policy. They have an interest in creating policies in order to protect the profession and the reputation of the department, both things that supersede any one individual officer, but which can be put at risk by an officer. However, there can be resistance by local unions and by national bodies to anything that infringes on the officer's freedoms -- Internet usage is not mentioned in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Further, police executives do not wish to contribute to a negative climate on their forces by taking a harsh and unreasonable stand with respect to social media. It can be difficult to strike the right balance.

Overview of Key Issues

The IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center wrote a concept paper on social media in 2010. This document presents a good framing of the issue of social media. It notes that social media has many uses, some of which are beneficial to departments, for example issuing alerts, calls for information or simply to communicate to the public on things like high-profile cases or community issues. Law enforcement also uses social media in its investigations. In these ways, it is a valuable tool for public engagement (Davis, Alves & Sklansky,2015).

There are, however, many instances outlined in the document of problems with social media usage, including inappropriate sexual communications that have been subject to legal action, defamatory material that carries the same risk. Some of the cases have been specifically illegal, such as attacks on people from protected classes, and others merely highly unethical, such as the officer that made the masturbation video. Whatever the case, there needs to be some control by law enforcement executives over the social media activities of their employees.

For their part, unions and officers' groups tend to fight back against such regulation. In one sense, they are right to do so, as without that sort of organization and support there might be situations where risk-averse executives enact regulations that are too stringent, such as banning outright the use of social media. It is necessary for officers and executives to work together to establish a common interest in the formation of social media policy, such that the interests of all stakeholders are being met.

Establishing Common Ground

Law enforcement executives should see social media policy as a balance of interests, and take the time to understand those interests. But they should also be prepared to outline their own interests. There are several important ones to take into consideration.. First, social media allows for far more personal information to be revealed, far more easily, that was possible before social media. With ever-changing privacy protocols, and the risk of hacking, police officers should be aware that social media usage presents an added security risk to themselves and their families (Waters, 2016). This is not to say that they cannot use social media, but law enforcement agencies should provide training for their officers to help them understand the risks, and learn how to protect themselves against these risk. The unions should contribute to this effort, as this effort is more about their members than about law enforcement agencies.

Another point that should be common ground is that social media is a tool, and it can be used in a number of ways. Some of these ways are clearly beneficial, others benign, but officers are expected to uphold the same standards of behavior on social media as they are in any other sphere. One of the issues that occurs is that with social media, everything is recorded. There are more eyeballs on it, and nothing can be expected to escape the world's notice. For example, an officer may commit sexual harassment offline and get away with it if nothing can be proven, but online the proof will be there, even if there is an attempt to erase it later, and the crime will be exposed.

What this means is that policy should not view social media as anything other than a tool. Prohibitions against certain activities, in particular illegal ones, already exist within the framework of employment agreements between agencies and unions. Social media should be built into those existing frameworks. For example, sexual harassment online is no different from offline, is against policy in either case, and is punishable in either case. Attempts to create a distinct policy for social media raises the risk of opposition from officers' unions in part because it raises the specter of administrative overreach. By working within the existing framework, it is clear to both sides that the same activities against which departments wish to protect themselves are activities they have always wanted to protect themselves against. Policies regarding social media need not be any more invasive than the policies already in place for other means of communication.

What might be considered, however, is that the risks associated with social media are greater, in cases of officer misconduct. It is much more difficult to keep situations behind closed doors, for example. It may be worth considering that punishments for social media violations should be more severe than for others, because they create a significantly higher level of risk for law enforcement organizations, especially where legal violations are concerned. When an officer breaks the law, social media records can and will be accessed in court, which makes it even more important that officers operate within not only the bounds of the law but with the integrity of the profession in mind at all times on social media, even when off-duty (IACP, 2010).

One thing that might help combat recalcitrant unions is to highlight the tools that law enforcement officers use in investigations. The techniques can be quite sophisticated, and all stakeholders should be made aware that these techniques can be used by the media, or anybody wishing to harm officers, by internal affairs investigators or others. Thus, policies to keep officers from being caught committing criminal acts, or unethical acts, are not just a matter of department optics, but safety for the officer as well -- knowing how easy it is to be caught if doing something stupid on social media is the first step in reducing risky social media behavior for officers (Broussard, 2015).

The regulation of individual social media should not be done outside of the context of the behavioral restrictions already in place. Law enforcement agencies have long maintained the right to ensure that their members are not acting against the interests of the department, are not behaving in illegal and unethical ways, and this should not change with social media. There is no evidence that social media policy should go beyond this, in terms of what activities are regulated. By the same token, it is not logical that unions should ask for law enforcement employees to have full freedom of speech on social media beyond what they are already allowed offline.

That said, the department should have policies in place to train officers on what is expected of them when using social media. There are many things that make officers of the law unique in terms of their status in the community. They should never use social media for things like harassing others, of course, but they must be trained, for example, that when exercising their First Amendment rights that their conduct will be a matter of the permanent public record, and by virtue of them being an officer will reflect directly on the department. Officers engaging in conduct detrimental to the department cannot expect to earn the same amount of privilege as officers who are demonstrating community leadership.

The agency relationship of all police employees and the department itself should not go unnoticed in social media policy. Even if there are certain situations where the department cannot gain support for specific regulations, it can still use training tools and organizational culture to ensure that officers are aware of the standards that the department wishes for them to have, as representatives of the department.

Conclusions

The best way to structure policies with respect to social media is that the policies should be in line with what exists outside of social media. Social media is a tool, and while there are certain unique elements to it, it is likely easier to develop policy by building on existing policies. There should be alignment of behaviors that are permissible online and offline, not special cases for each. This not only makes social media policy easy to understand, but does not create grey areas. Officers can still be held accountable for what they post on social media, without the need for new restrictions, or undue constraints on their social media usages. However, training on social media usage and the expected off-duty behavioral standards that the department has might be able to mitigate some of the risk. It is unwise and likely impractical to eliminate social media usage by officers -- and indeed the department should make ample… [END OF PREVIEW]

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