If you’re like most people, you’re probably on some form of social media — whether it be Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or any of the many other platforms available.
Police officers aren’t like the majority of Americans, who use social media every day to explore, share, post and connect with the world. Facebook is a very scary place for police officers.
My own informal poll shows that only about 30 percent of the police officers I come in contact with have a social media presence. The number is even lower for those at the executive level. Of course, the younger the officer, the more likely he or she is to be engaged.
This lack of presence is significant when compared to the general populace. The Pew Research polls for social media engagement show that 74 percent of online adults in the United States use Facebook as well as other social media sites.
As I look at it, social media is really hurting the reputation of law enforcement. Yet very few police officers have a social media presence.
There are good reasons police officers choose not to engage in social media. The risks are very real. Almost every police department I know of has provided training bulletins to its officers on the dangers of being on social media.
Bad guys might try to track you down. I would venture to guess more than one bad guy has searched for the officer who arrested him on Facebook.
Or worse yet, there are attorneys who have attempted to use an officer’s musings on his social media account against him or her in court. A private musing can easily be taken out of context.
Then you could complain about your police chief on social media and end up getting disciplined, demoted or even terminated.
Policing is a paramilitary organization and every department has rules of conduct that are pretty strict about bringing discredit upon the department.
Even if you’re responsible, civilized and diligent on social media it still can be risky.
Recently, a photographer posted a picture of an officer on his professional site. The officer was named as part of the posting. Within days, the picture was hijacked and reposted on a site known for personally attacking officers involved in use-of-force cases.
Mind you, the officer was cleared — departmentally and legally — in the case in which he was involved. The case was years old, but that didn’t matter. The officer’s picture was posted on the group’s Facebook page with the heading, “Killer Cop.”
This issue isn’t just about the personal safety of the officer. What about his or her family? If they can find him, there is every possibility these dangerous trolls can find them as well.
In a recent case, an individual charged with a misdemeanor started an online rant threatening to protest. Apparently prosecutors felt he crossed the line when he tagged the officer’s family members in the posting and stated he knew where they lived. He is currently awaiting trail.
Then there was an FBI bulletin from December 2014 warning military and police officers of possible threats from ISIS members. Apparently ISIS has no problem participating in social media.
Military and police personnel were advised they were putting themselves at risk of a terrorist attack if they were on social media.
One police manager told me they advise all their officers not to be involved in any social media.
That’s really too bad.
When I look at the perception of policing today, I have to wonder if police officers’ lack of a social media presence contributes to all the negative discourse taking place.
After all, if officers were present they could see and contribute to the debate. They could engage their friends, family and relatives who might have a different point of view.
Only then will police officers really comprehend how quickly a community’s trust can turn against them.
But is the risk worth it?
The decision for a police officer to engage in social media is one every officer has to make for himself or herself. It does take courage, and I commend those bold enough to jump into the fray.
Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org