Article Archive Details
Hendon Publishing

Social Media, the Internet and Law Enforcement for Background Investigations

Every agency wants to hire the best officers, which is why most have rigorous hiring practices. We test, we interview, we investigate and if the candidate makes the cut, then off to an academy for more testing and then to the FTO phase for more evaluation. We do this to make sure we have the most qualified officers amongst the ranks … and it also helps in avoiding a negligent hiring lawsuit.

But if you haven’t added a social networking background check to your battery of hiring protocols then you’re asking for trouble … and possibly the negligent hiring lawsuit.

Most applicants are going to put their best foot forward during the screening process. They are going to have a nice shiny resume, a pretty application and the names of three very well prepped references. Even the worst applicants make the effort. We have all met the candidate who has sworn off marijuana for the last three months in preparation. But no matter how much an applicant cleans up his or her act, there’s one thing they can’t make disappear … the never-forgetting internet.

Most law enforcement officer candidates are in that generation that grew up with the internet. They have always had email, they’ve had a smartphone since high school (or earlier) and they communicate primarily through social networking websites. They instantly upload photos, be it the innocuous (and unnecessary) photos of their soon-to-be-eaten breakfast or the damaging (and also unnecessary) photos of the beer bong championships.

And while they may be able to make their pages seemingly private and even delete their photos, they forget that internet – and all of the “deep web” search engines – does not forget. Neither does the hard copy printout of something that still exists.

Agencies should absolutely be screening their potential hires via social networking sites. Online background investigations are not without some dangers, however. Remember that while you can ask what social networking sites a candidate utilizes, you cannot ask for their password. To demand a password violates the Federal Stored Communications Act, as upheld in Pietrylo v. Hillstone Restaurant Group (D.N.J. 2008).

And be sure not to mine for information that is antithetical to personnel practices, especially keeping protected class information in mind – including participation with certain online sites, links, “likes,” and group association. Another caveat: Be aware of misleading or false information attributed to the candidate/officer. The cyber world, especially amongst the younger generation, can be a ruthless, ugly place where scorned friendships/relationships are played out with online commentary that is not always accurate. It is also not uncommon for friends to access another friend’s page and post derogatory things so it looks like it originated from the unsuspecting friend.

A good background investigator will talk to someone, sense something hinky, and then follow up with more questions and talk to more people. The same should occur in the cyberworld. The investigator should peruse the subject’s Facebook page and follow the online trails – one click at a time. And then the subject’s name, user names and email addresses should be checked via a “deep web” search engine.

Why? Because that shiny face in front of you has been polished just for the interview and their online history has not. If the applicant has an online history of making derogatory remarks about a culture, race or ethnicity that is an issue. If the applicant cannot wait to get a badge so he can go out and “thump thugs,” that’s a problem. If the applicant has a penchant for irresponsible alcohol consumption with photographic evidence, that’s a problem.

And if you hire someone with these issues, just see what a good lawyer will do with the evidence in a suit … and just think how the agency could have prevented the nightmare if it had adequately screened its hires. Next month, using social networking for criminal investigations.


Cara Donlon-Cotton is a former course developer and instructor with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. She currently teaches a variety of media relations and social networking classes to local law enforcement agencies. She can be reached at or through the Public Safety Training & Education Network at

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2012

Rating : Not Yet Rated

Related Products



No Comments

Close ...