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.