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Law enforcement and social media: be careful what you post

Social media has served as a catalyst for both connection and catastrophe in recent years. The ability to share your thoughts, feelings, preferences and photographs with family and friends at the click of a button is both convenient and empowering. However, time and experience has proven how important it is to think before clicking, given the consequences that a careless or hurtful post can have on yourself and/or others.

Professionals must be especially careful in how they interact with social media, and law enforcement professionals are no exception. Posting words and images that are protected free speech in ordinary circumstances can be professionally devastating for those who wear the badge.

The Risks

Law enforcement officers increasingly use social networking sites to educate the public, gather evidence and investigate criminal activity. However, public defenders are using the questionable conduct of officers online to build their own cases. For example, The New York Times reports that a jury in New York “dismissed a weapons charge against a defendant after learning that the arresting officer had listed his mood on MySpace as ‘devious’ and wrote on Facebook that he was watching the film ‘Training Day’ to ‘brush up on proper police procedure.'”

In addition, certain information that officers choose to post can endanger the safety of victims, witnesses and other officers.

Free Speech?

As a result of these risks, many police departments have developed rules governing what their employees may and may not do online. The free speech of a government employee may generally be curtailed if the speech is job-related.

Police departments are insisting more frequently that officers not post anything that reflects poorly on a department, discriminates or disparages against others based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., or conveys information related to a case or crime scene. In most cases, common sense lines up with what these departments will and will not allow.