Emailing, Texting, Social Networking and Other Ways to Screw Up Your Career
Sgt Betsy Brantner Smith
Twelve years ago I got my first departmental email address and thought it was the coolest and most comprehensive electronic communication tool that I would ever use or need. I also assumed it was completely private, belonged only to me and that when I hit “delete” it went away forever. For an oldster who was born prior to 1960, I’ve learned an awful lot since then. These days I don’t hesitate to text, tweet, friend and blog my way around the Internet from the comfort of my phone, my PC or my tiny little netbook, but I also know that whatever I say, type or post is out there for all of humanity to see.
Surfing the Web. I didn’t own a personal computer until about 1998, but as a sergeant I had one on my desk at work. The officers also had to PC’s available to them throughout the city and when we were finally given access to the Internet, it was a free-for-all. The very first phrase I ever entered into a World Wide Web search box was “women police”. In addition to learning all about the history of female cops and the associations available for me to join, I saw Web site after Web site of really hot young women wearing nothing but a fake gun belt or a police hat, really red lipstick, and doing pretty intimate things with, well, everybody. Wow! I had no idea. But I quickly learned how to refine my searches, block pop-ups, and use my Internet access primarily for good, not evil. However, pretty soon throughout the agency we had increasing incidents of Internet abuse, from printing out images from “inappropriate” websites to spending most of the workday on Ebay, so our department, like many others, cracked down on employee use of the Internet. Visiting sites like PoliceLink and the Officer Down Memorial Page are a good officer use of technology; shopping for a new car, playing online poker, or visiting other inappropriate sites are not. The bottom line? Use your head, think ethically, and be reasonable. Unless you work in the computer crimes unit, you’re not being paid to surf the ‘net.
An email is forever. I learned this the hard way many, many times over. Just as it is with officer survival, when we’re talking about “career survival,” learning from the mistakes of others is key. It all began when law enforcement started using in-car computers with mobile data transmitters, or MDTs. The public outrage over the beating of career criminal Rodney King by the LAPD was the exacerbated by racially tainted car-to-car MDT traffic. Most cops learned (or should have learned) right then and there that if it can’t be said over the radio, don’t say it over the computer. There is also no such thing as an anonymous computer transmission or email. If you are using your departmental email you are probably signing on to a network of some sort. All of your transmissions are captured and can be recalled. Even if you use your personal email address from a departmental computer, everything you do online will be available for review by your employer. Many police agencies have very strict policies regarding Internet and email use, including flagging certain “inappropriate” words used in the body of an email, not allowing attachments, and tracking a user’s amount of time spent online. Know what your department policies are and again, be logical. Don’t send out a shift-wide email calling the chief a “spineless pinhead” unless you’re willing to explain to his face why you feel that way and suffer the consequences. Remember that emails can become part of the record keeping of an investigation or an incident and can be used in court, and that any email you send out, even if it’s from home on your personal account can be forwarded, printed, and otherwise widely distributed; don’t hit “send” if you think anything you’ve put in that email can back to bite you.
What would we do without texting?! Less than two years ago, I barely understood what “texting” was; now I can’t imagine life without it. As a patrol supervisor, texting was invaluable during our shift. We used it for everything from critical incident updates to deciding where to meet for coffee to silently sharing information while handing a domestic dispute. Police investigators can use a bad guy’s text messages to follow their conversations, identify and prove intent, and even track their whereabouts. Simplistically put, text messages travel either via cell phone lines or the Internet, so like email they do not really disappear even when you hit “delete.” They are also easily saved and even more easily forwarded, so be cautious what you are texting about and who you are sending texts to; they might someday be used against you, legally, professionally or both.
Social networking and Internal Affairs. There are so many social networking sites out there, from Facebook to MySpace to Twitter. There are also professional networking sites, like Plaxo and LinkedIn, and sites just for law enforcement such as PoliceLink. Regardless of what site or sites you choose to participate in, DO NOT post, comment or blog about anything that you wouldn’t want your chief, your sheriff or your grandmother to see. Think ahead; you may be in high school or college now, but eventually prospective employers are going to take a look at your social networking sites. Or you may be a young police officer enjoying your job in patrol, but posting those pictures of your college buddy’s drunken bachelor party on your Facebook aren’t going to impress your deputy chief, especially when you take that sergeant’s promotional exam in a few years. You also have to be careful who you “friend” or who “friends” you, and who you communicate with, even on a “police only” site. You always have to be mindful of how very anonymous the Internet really is, and you also have to accept that even your “secure” profile page probably isn’t. And even if you don’t post stupid stuff on your own site, others may have photos or video of you or they may attribute statements or actions to you on their own sites that are going to land you in the Internal Affairs office.
So much to blog about, so little time. Thanks to the Internet and the proliferation of easy-to-use software, anyone can have his or her own Web site and/or blog. Blogging can be a great way to share information, but so many people use it to electronically vent, whine, or complain. If you’re a blogger, just keep in mind that your blog is public information and can be interpreted many different ways. Even if your blog has nothing to do with police work, if you make comments that would discredit you or the agency, you may have a big problem.
The World Wide Web and all the technology that goes with it can make our jobs and our lives so much easier, but we also have to think about how and what we put out on the Internet and on our cell phones may affect our personal reputation, the reputation of our agency, and sometimes even the honor of our profession.
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