Are Officers Crossing the Line Online?
Detroit Free Press via YellowBrix
September 27, 2010
DETROIT – Metro Detroit police officers are among many public servants who maintain private lives on the Internet.
On Facebook, they post photos, tag friends and change status updates. On Twitter, they post plans, thoughts or locations.
But depending on what they write or post, an officer could be breaking confidentiality, undermining an investigation, or worse — potentially violating someone’s constitutional rights, said Detroit Police Second Deputy Chief Michael Falvo. That’s not to mention possibly embarrassing the department, he added.
The what-ifs are forcing police departments to consider policies for an ever-evolving Internet.
“We’re in constant defense about it,” said Auburn Hills Police Chief Doreen Olko. “It’s not practical to forbid it, but what you hear on the job, see on the job, you leave it there. Now the lines are getting blurrier.”
Although Olko hasn’t had a breach yet, she said she worries about officers posting photos of themselves in uniform, posting information that shares an opinion, or being seen in a way that compromises the credibility of the officer or the department. Within her force of 53 sworn officers, she estimates that half have a Facebook page. It’s a hot topic among department heads, she said.
“Police are privy to lots of information,” she said. “Social media is just a whole new thing.”
But social media can hurt an active career — and stop one before it starts.
Southfield Police Chief Joseph Thomas said the Facebook status update of one young recruit — “I can’t wait to get a gun and kick some ass” — ended his chances of getting an offer from the department.
“Do we want that mentality on the streets of Southfield?” he said.
Dealing with social media is now a training topic departments can pursue, said Randolph Skotarczyk, chief of Harper Woods police. The department has no explicit social media policy.
He likened dealing with Facebook and other social media to the early days of camera phones, when the ethical dilemma was about photos on personal hardware.
“The tendency is to put so much up there,” he said of social media sites. “You think the communication is only with friends, but it’s with everyone.”
Warren Police Chief William Dwyer said, so far, the department has not had issues with Facebook.
The department does not have a specific social media policy.
Anything that’s considered evidence is to stay within the department, whether physically or through the Internet. Dwyer, a former Detroit police officer, said the lesson that nothing is private was well-learned through the text message scandal involving former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
“It’s not a private thing now,” he said of communication.
That is why Auburn Hills Officer Jeramey Peters monitors his personal page. He wants to be sure the people he serves professionally don’t have access to his family through social networking.
“It’s easy to go onto Facebook and post photos. There’s no control,” he said.
Shelby Township Police Chief Robert Leman said the department’s policy also is more general; evidence and photographs are not allowed outside the department.
The Dearborn Police Department doesn’t have a policy specific to social media, but generally requires no information be released without the chief’s approval, said Lt. Anthony Mencotti.
“Even if the most benign scene was posted on Facebook, there would be serious consequences,” he said.