Is it time to scrub Facebook?

A website that monitors law enforcement officers’ Facebook posts is prompting investigations in many agencies

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Living in conformity with department regulations, political pressure, society’s expectations, media bias and critics’ scrutiny leaves little room for error in an officer’s conduct. Officers routinely deal with the release of personal information, the recording of every call for service, judicial reviews, internal investigations, civilian review boards, and now, the scanning of their social media posts.

What is left of an officer’s private life, their ability to have an opinion and the exercise of their First Amendment rights? Those questions are great fodder for philosophical conversation, but they are also great fodder for bad publicity and bad results in court.

The icon of Facebook is pictured on an iPhone on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
The icon of Facebook is pictured on an iPhone on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo/Pixabay)

Officers’ Facebook posts under scrutiny

A website that monitors law enforcement officers’ Facebook posts is prompting investigations in many police agencies probing whether their officers are promoting discriminatory ideology that can be perceived as affecting their enforcement practices.

The Dallas News reports that the Dallas Police Department is investigating posts from current and former officers that “include some that equate Muslims with terrorists, make light of claims of police brutality and support killing refugees and criminals. Other posts identify with right-wing militia groups and employ racist stereotypes.” Police agencies in several other states are also investigating their officers’ social media feeds.

Police officers have diverse opinions just like other segments of the culture, with a subset of officers who are outspoken with their political views and unfiltered humor. A look at the posts that the website identify as offensive can appear to be funny, innocuous, or even reflect situations officers face daily.

For the officer’s agency, digging out from under the suspicion of employing officers who hold racist or extremist views that could affect their enforcement behavior can bruise years of trust building. Many police agencies have policies that guide officer conduct on personal internet sites, but no policy can cover every poor decision or predict every reaction of offended parties.

For the individual officer, a single Facebook post or series of posts can spell disaster. Imagine a half dozen posts over a three-year period by an officer with a disdain for Muslims. One post uses discriminatory terminology when referring to adherents of Islam, another shows a photo of the World Trade Center with commentary advocating banning immigration, and there are several “likes” of posts that imply a conspiracy to institute Sharia law. Now our hypothetical officer arrests a person of Middle Eastern descent who resists and must be subdued using force. It doesn’t take much imagination to expect a defense attorney to bring those posts to the table for a plea bargain, or the arrestee’s plaintiff’s attorney being sure that a jury in a civil suit paints a picture of bias.

It might be time for officers to consider scrubbing their Facebook history, and Facebook has recently made that possible.

Deleting Facebook posts

Data breaches of Facebook users’ retained marketing information generated consumer outrage and changes in Facebook’s privacy settings. Users, including cops who want to avoid the hassle of professional Facebook stalkers, can now fully delete past posts with a promise from Facebook that that information isn’t stored somewhere waiting for a subpoena.

Under “settings” there is a small Facebook icon next to “Your Facebook Information” that creates a menu that includes “Access Your Information” leading to another menu that can navigate through past posts and permanently delete those the user doesn’t want discovered.

With the multitude of other social media platforms, users might need to search the internet to purchase software for deleting past posts. Whether those products can save the user from posts, tweets, memes, or shares on others’ accounts varies among products.

Don’t provide fuel for the fire

A carefully curated social media presence is crucial for anyone in law enforcement who wants to keep their platforms and keep their job, not to mention compete for promotion or survive a lawsuit. No one can expect an attorney to overlook the opportunity to paint an officer in the worst possible light to benefit a client. Saying “I didn’t really mean it that way,” or “It was just a joke,” or “That doesn’t affect the way I do my job,” or even an apology for misjudgment will not constitute a defense or explanation that will undo the damage.

Officers can claim freedom of speech, but no one can claim freedom from consequences.

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