Protecting Your Police Department’s Reputation: Are Your Social Media Policies Strong Enough?

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Dec 28, 2022

You’ve seen the headlines. We all have. Police officers sharing GIFs celebrating the use of force. Others using fake Twitter accounts to troll critics. Still others posting deeply offensive content on social media revealing racially or politically charged bias.

As practitioners in the field, our law enforcement consulting team has been encountering such scenarios regularly across the country, supporting city and police leaders in our largest cities as well as some of our smallest municipalities. I continue to be surprised, however, at how many agencies have yet to establish clear social media strategies supported by policies and training, sometimes even after the agency has been tarnished by a prior incident or discovery.

Impact of Officer Bias on Reputation + Case Outcomes

First Amendment rights are always important, for both officers and members of the public. But when officers share content that reflects bias, the reputation of the whole agency can be damaged. Another consequence is that evidence of bias on the part of the officer, whether they post in their capacity as a member of the department or as a civilian, can negatively impact otherwise successful criminal cases in which the officer played a role.

On two occasions – Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) and Connick v. Myer (1983) – the Supreme Court confirmed that public employees have a First Amendment right to speak as a citizen on a topic of public concern. But the Court also confirmed that those protections don’t extend to undermining the operations of the government entity where they work. In short, officers don’t have the right to broadcast vitriol and retain their jobs as police officers.

Strengthening Social Media Usage Policies + Procedures

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), social media can be used by police departments as a way to advance community outreach, share information with stakeholders, and clarify policy and operational elements, such as crime fighting objectives. At the same time, the reputation of the agency could suffer if officers share content on social media that reflects bias. The following are considerations for establishing and strengthening social media usage policies, procedures, and training.

  1. Establish Clear Social Media Strategies and Policies. The IACP has published a helpful guide on agencies’ use of social media. It urges police departments to craft a clear social media strategy that includes policies and procedures on social media use by officers and other departmental personnel. These policies and procedures should address both employees’ individual rights and freedoms as well as the agency’s requirements. Consider prohibiting officers from disclosing their employment with the department and their use of identifying items, such as uniforms, logos and other insignia.
  2. Update Your Recruiting Process. Before new officers join the force, your agency should take steps to ensure that these individuals’ values, behaviors, associations and social media activity reflect, or at least are fully consistent with, the mission, principles and culture of the agency. As part of the vetting process, each candidate’s social media footprint should be reviewed for potential biases.
  3. Periodically Audit Recent Postings by Existing Personnel. Don’t wait for the media, community members or a criminal party’s defense attorney to uncover an officer’s malicious, hateful or biased postings. Conduct a random audit at various times of the year and be prepared to enforce any social media policy violations, including remedial training, fines, censures or terminations, when necessary.
  4. Train Officers on Social Media Usage. You’ll need to train officers and other personnel on the specifics of your social media policies – first, during onboarding of new personnel and then on an ongoing basis as part of other annual training activities. Highlight the importance of privacy settings and the possibility that unintended audiences could gain access to their content, including pictures, videos, GIFs and texts.

Respect, Communication and Trust

Fundamentally, social media is one of several platforms and channels that can help or hurt a department. If you are committed to cultivating a department whose officers’ actions and behaviors advance the department’s mission and deepen its relationship with the communities it serves, then updating your social media usage policies, procedures and training should be moved higher on your priority list.

Jensen Hughes can help perform an objective evaluation of your department’s operations, policies and procedures to help improve its performance and counter any deficiencies with measures aligned with best practices. Learn more about our law enforcement consulting services.