Cops get screened for digital dirt on Facebook

Critics say poking into police recruits' cyberspace goes too far

By Kevin Johnson
USA Today

WASHINGTON, DC — Law enforcement agencies are digging deep into the social media accounts of applicants, requesting that candidates sign waivers allowing investigators access to their Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter and other personal spaces.

Some agencies are demanding that applicants provide private passwords, Internet pseudonyms, text messages and e-mail logs as part of an expanding vetting process for public safety jobs.

More than a third of police agencies review applicants' social media activity during background checks, according to the first report on agencies' social media use by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the largest group of police executives. The report out last month surveyed 728 agencies.

"As more and more people join these networks, their activities on these sites become an intrinsic part of any background check we do," said Laurel, Md., Police Chief David Crawford.

Privacy advocates say some background investigations, including requests for text message and e-mail logs, may go too far.

"I'm very uneasy about this," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Where does it all stop?"

During the IACP's conference last month in Orlando, about 100 chiefs and other law enforcement officials who attended sessions on vetting applicants' social media use said they either request waivers and other personal information from applicants or are developing policies to do so.

Of "particular concern" is that defense lawyers could use officers' posts to undercut their credibility in court, according to a memo drafted by lawyers for the National Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police union.

"Testimony in a criminal or civil matter could be impeached using information from an officer's personal social-networking page," the union's associate general counsel Jeffrey Houser warned in the memo to be published next month. The memo is the union's most comprehensive instruction for police use of social media, said Jim Pasco, the group's executive director.

Among the concerns:

— In Massachusetts, Malden Police Chief Jim Holland, whose agency has requested electronic message logs, said a recruit's text messages revealed past threats of suicide, resulting in disqualification.

— In New Jersey, Middletown Police Chief Robert Oches said a candidate was disqualified for posting racy photographs of himself with scantily clad women.

— At the Florida conference, Crawford narrated a video full of officers' inappropriate Facebook postings, from sexually explicit photographs to racially charged commentary. All of it, he said, argues for better background checks for incoming recruits.

"If you post something on Facebook," he said, "it should be something you wouldn't mind seeing" in the newspaper.

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