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Tips for Enforcing Social Networking Policies

Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton

The majority of Facebook and Twitter users have no filter. They enjoy posting mundane updates about their every trivial move, thought and decision. Some attribute this voluntary abandonment of personal privacy as a generational issue, in that those born in Generation Y (between 1980 and 1994, recently dubbed “Generation Me”) are inherently narcissistic. But now the older teens and the college-aged set are finding their “share all” lifestyles are coming back to haunt them as they try to gain acceptance into top-notch universities or seek reputable employment.

This trend of researching the online history of applicants has made its way to law enforcement, with recruiters and background investigators looking into the Facebook and MySpace pages of future officers. Such practices should be encouraged, as one’s virtual life is becoming as important as (and in some cases, more important than) one’s real life. But once the background is cleared and the officer hired, who polices his online life? Is that the role of the department? Is the officer entitled to online privacy? If the officer’s offline actions can be regulated, then surely his online actions can be as well.

To have a successful social networking policy, one of the first steps an agency needs to take is to educate its officers about what is expected. And the first rule for law enforcement officers who play on Facebook and the like is that “nothing is private.” Privacy on the Internet doesn’t really exist. And officers should be expected to take responsibility for their online activities and depictions. But what else can an agency do to help enforce its social networking policy?

Strong Written Policy

The longer and more thorough the policy, the better. Leave nothing up to interpretation. Be specific and cover everything, literally. Cover the use of social networking sites, blogging, commenting on news articles, personal Web sites, commenting on other Web sites, etc. If your officers can do it online, your policy should outline what is acceptable and what is not.

Check up on your officers’ online profiles. Your agency needs to decide whether or not it wants to routinely check its officers’ profiles or just check them when an issue arises. If you want to implement routine screening, then you’ll need to decide whether you’ll have officers fill out some type of form which lists their online affiliations, or whether you want to have someone devote the time to search for their profiles. Whose responsibility this falls to can range from Internal Affairs to the officer’s immediate supervisor. That is a decision to be made by the agency head.

Checking online profiles does not necessarily have to be like a background investigation where the officer logs into his social networking site in the presence of the investigator, but rather a simple check to see what the page (or pages) looks like to the average user—is it mostly private, are the visible pictures and postings appropriate, etc?

The other option is to only check an officer’s profile if the situation warrants it. Has someone complained? Has something been brought to the agency’s attention? Also, consider the implications if such situations are discovered by a crusading journalist or a vengeful member of the public. And consider the implications for the department if, let’s say, the chief is Facebook friends with an officer who is offensive on his personal page but then does nothing about it.
Forbid Social Networking On-duty

Sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace can be blocked from government computers by your IT people. If your municipality opts not to block such sites, you can audit the pages accessed per computer and narrow it down to what times they were accessed. If you establish a pattern of abuse, you can take action from that point.

Along with this, forbid the use of cell phones or PDAs to use social networking while on duty. Banning cell phones might not be possible, and it certainly wouldn’t be a popular mandate. But you can implement rules about their usage. Most social networking sites record the time of update, comment, tweet, etc., and you can verify whether an officer was working or Facebooking during his shift.

It is, of course, impossible to prevent officers from social networking, but it is possible to enforce polices that regulate their appearance as officers on such sites. If you are not consistent with your enforcement methods, your policy will have no teeth.

Cara Donlon-Cotton is a former course developer and instructor with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center . She currently teaches Media Relations and Public Relations to local law enforcement agencies. She can be reached at cdonloncotton@yahoo.com or through the Public Safety Training and Education Network at http://psten.com.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2010

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