The Ingredients of a Solid Social Media Policy for Law Enforcement Agencies

A Social Media policy is essential for any agency because it can be used to encourage online participation among officers and staff as well as lay the foundation for how to get them started. By offering guidelines in the form of a social media policy, officers can know what’s expected and that it’s o.k. to get involved. One Chief of Police in Nebraska has embraced social media tools in his agency and recently created a social media policy for his department. Chief John Stacey says he wants a policy in place so his employees know that he encourages them to interact electronically “for the good of the department and citizens a long as they’re aware that common sense is warranted when online”. So he is taking a proactive approach to what he refers to as “overwhelming changes in communications”.

The Bellevue Police Department is committed to ensuring all portions of the community can contact, interact and consult with their police department. Newspapers, TV and radio do not reach the majority as assumed by many. By recognizing the potential of reaching a larger sector through all forms of media enables a higher degree of transparency and enhances our service capability.
~Chief John Stacey

As an overview, all law enforcement social media policies should address what any social media policy should address as well as include things that are more important because of the expectations of law enforcement officers to adhere to higher standards. All general social media policies include:

  • 1. taking personal responsibility for the content a person publishes,
  • 2. identifying oneself in all transactions,
  • 3. using disclaimers to absolve the department of responsibility,
  • 4. respect for the audience, and
  • 5. being factual.

Additionally, all standard social media policies address

  • 6. copyright,
  • 7. fair use, and
  • 8. privacy.

Because cops are made to adhere to a higher moral standard and because there’s an inherent fear among cops about new technology and change, but also because so much benefit can be realized by law enforcement agencies by using social media tool, extra emphasis is needed in some areas of a good social media policy. Law Enforcement specific policies should also address: 1. extra emphasis on integrity, 2. extra emphasis on the use of disclaimers, 3. extra emphasis on stating one’s identity as a member of the agency, 4. distinguish between department-sanctioned social media tools and those that are not sanctioned by the department, 5. competence and knowledge about any social media tool one engages in, 6. extra responsibility on the part of the command staff and 7. an offer to provide training to alleviate fear and provide a comfort level with using the technology.

1. Integrity. Perhaps the most important part of everything a law enforcement agency does online or elsewhere is integrity. Agency participants in social media should be reminded that Integrity is the essential ingredient to using social media ethically. Agency employees should, therefore, be honest in their use of social media and maintain high regard for the public interest. All information disseminated should be absolutely accurate.

2. Disclaimers. Because you may be giving your personnel the authority to comment on issues relating to the department, it’s imperative to emphasize the importance that officers, especially, state that what they write is their own opinion and not that of the department.

3. Identity. Some bloggers work anonymously, using pseudonyms or false screen names. Law enforcement agencies should absolutely insist that in blogs, wikis or other forms of online participation that relate to the department or the city, or activities or issues with which the department is engaged; department employees use their accurate identity.

4. Department-sanctioned tools. While it should be stated that the social media policy of the agency covers activity by agency employees on tools they may create on their own or those of others that they might contribute to, department-sanctioned tools should be governed more closely. These are the tools the department initiates and sponsors. The guidelines for these can be as strict as the agency deems necessary but should also include encouragement of participation along with the requirements for an officer to use his agency email and photo and in his online profiles.

5. Competence. Department employees, whether staff or sworn, should not use anything social media tool unless they really understand how it works. It harkens back to that higher moral standard for police. Officers have often stated, with Facebook for example, “I don’t friend anyone I don’t know”. Good idea. However, they don’t know everyone that their friends know. Consider the case of the friend of the wife of an officer who posted some party pictures which included lots of cops drinking beer at a local watering hole. In and of itself, that’s not the problem. But the friend of the wife tags a few of the guys by name, others comment on the content of the photos with statements like “how drunk were you guys?”, and it goes on from there. None of it was created by any “friend” an officer knew, but rather friends of friends of friends. To be absolutely safe, the best recommendation is that officers keep separate profiles for work and play. On non-department related profiles however, officers should still exercise command sense and a great deal of caution.

6. Command Staff responsibility. Standard disclaimers, do not by themselves, exempt command staff officers from any special responsibility. By virtue of their position, they must consider whether personal thoughts they publish may be misunderstood as expressing opinions of the agency. Additionally, a command staff member should assume that department employees will read what is written. A public blog is not the place to communicate department policies to department employees.

7. Training. Provide social media training for your officers and staff. Once your policy is written, be sure to distribute it with conversations about departmental support for social media. That would be a good time to roll out training in the various tools. Social media tools scare some people. They shouldn’t. However, scary things can happen if they’re not understood, a little knowledge goes a long way.

While a social media policy is essential for any law enforcement agency, whether it has its own online presence or not, the creation and communication of the policy is perhaps the most important factor in online activity. Agencies can find a good policy online already drafted by existing companies, but even the best of them should be edited to incorporate the special needs of law enforcement.

  • Mike

    People want to listen to authentic content that gives them real value, and social media is a great platform for this if used correctly. Therefore, I agree that integrity is the most important part of a police department’s social media strategy. Police must always be honest and not sound rehearsed when communicating with the public through these channels. Implement a social media strategy and the community will come, have integrity behind your content and the community will stay.

  • Lauri Stevens

    Mike, Thank you for your thoughtful comments and for taking the initiative to contribute to the ConnectedCops Blog. We hope to continue to earn your positive thoughts, but welcome ANY comments, even if they’re constructively critical. I, personally, hope to bring you commentary from officers who are in the thick of the SM experience, with special emphasis on contributions from the command-level personnell who “have a clue” about social media. Please stay tuned, and thanks again for your contribution. ~Lauri

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  • Christa M. Miller

    I had to take a few days to think about this one… :) With regard to #3, the requirement for officers to use their identities. Obviously this is true for “official” department blogs run by the PIO or the community relations officer… but what about anonymous blogs, where the officer’s identity is often known (guessed) at least to PD personnel and sometimes even civilians?

    I’m thinking of the anonymous bloggers who tell “stories” about their time on duty. It would be easy for people to recognize themselves especially if they recognized the officer’s name. Civil suits for “emotional distress” could become a possibility… or at least a concern for administrators.

    I know blogging under their true identities cuts down on the likelihood that officers will say something stupid or even libelous, but many good blogs would be shut down if officers felt they couldn’t tell the truth.

    Do you think officers should be allowed to blog anonymously as long as admins know who they are? Does it matter if they don’t disclose their agency… even if others guess who they really are?

  • Lauri Stevens

    This is also related to point #4 that policies should cover department-sanctioned tools as well as those in which an officer may participate. I think it’s a very bad idea for cops to blog anonymously. You say some people can guess who they are. Therein lies the problem. And, courts have been known to force admins to disclose the identify of anonymous bloggers. I recently had a request to add to my blogroll one of the blogs you’re referring to and I declined. Personally, I’m not interested in supporting nor reading anything someone isn’t willing to put their name on. I’d be interested in hearing some opinions on this matter from law enforcement commanders.

  • Dan Alexander

    Great question on anonymity. If it is officially sanctioned, I think we risk losing credibility. We have made a concerted effort to be more, dare I say, “transparent,” understanding that many people have serious trust issues with the police.

    There are independent law enforcement related forums which offer anonymity. Unfortunately, the sites are open to everyone, including frauds and malcontents. Are you really getting a true perspective on policing?

    I’ve talked about the fear of getting burned before. I’m hoping that SM is a new way for us to open up a little more without suffering the hazards described above. We shall see.

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  • Christa M. Miller

    I have extremely mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I want to agree. You are right that lawsuits can arise from anonymity too. But ultimately, the fact that officers aren’t protected from lawsuits whether they’re anonymous or not will drive liability-conscious administrators away from social media, not toward it — “damned if you do, damned if you don’t, so why bother?” in play.

    So should agencies then demand that officers blog only within the confines of an official department blog? Is it possible for them to hold a series of dialogues with the citizens about officers’ right to free speech? Would that start to solve problems with honesty… or should honesty in fact be sacrificed for transparency, even if it has the chance to change citizen behavior?

  • Lauri Stevens

    Ultimately, I think it’s really up to each department to decide for themselves. I can certainly see both sides. I don’t think officers should be limited to their own department blog, no way! Just that they should identify themselves IF their writing “relates to the department or the city”.

  • Christa M. Miller

    Yeah. That’s why it’s good that more than one of us is talking about it. ;)

    Was going to add that anonymity is something I’ve dealt with before writing magazine articles for LE. Anonymous sources are frowned upon even for trade journals, but there were times they added special dimension to articles despite the fact that their PIOs would never have sanctioned their talking to me.

    (Yes, I’ve moved away from this in the meantime, and frankly PIOs seem more amenable to me. Which is good because I don’t know why talking investigative methods would get cops in trouble, but I guess lawyers Google names, and the PIOs were afraid the sources would be misquoted even when I promised to let them see a draft…)

  • Christa M. Miller

    Also… going back to “anonymous” officers being found out… does that factor into policy-making? Should PDs require that officers never mention their location if they’re going to blog, so neither officer nor PD might be discovered?

  • JoeTheCop

    I think a lot depends on why the blogger wants to remain anonymous–is it because they want to say a lot of inflammatory stuff that could possibly become the subject of an IA investigation or lawsuit, or do they simply want to be left alone?

  • Ingredients

    Thanks for sharing such a nice post.

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