Employers can no longer able pretend that social media is a kid’s game – not when the average age of a Facebook user is just over 40 years old and 46 percent of those 65 years old or older are using at least one social media platform.  Developing a policy for employees on their use of social media while at work – and increasingly outside of work – cannot be overlooked.  It’s now just as expected as a dress code or a sexual harassment policy.

New Challenges for Police Chiefs and Their Command Teams

And that is just as true for Police Departments as it is for any other employer in this country.  Last month, the Seattle Police Department announced a new social media policy that includes officer’s personal use of social media, following incidents like that of Seattle police officer posting a racist tirade on Facebook.

Not Just Twitter or Facebook – But Wikipedia Too

Stories of employees writing inflammatory posts on Facebook or Twitter that are later publicized by the media are so frequent that mayors, city managers, and police chiefs could be misled to believe that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the only social media platforms that need to be addressed in such a policy.  This line of thinking is quickly changing after two stories broke in the past month about police officers changing Wikipedia entries on their own departments to reflect more favorably on them.

  • San Diego Police Department:  Last week, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that on five occasions, individuals – including a San Diego Police Department dispatcher – used the San Diego Police Department’s Internet connection to alter the Department’s Wikipedia page.  The Wikipedia users edited and deleted content that reflected negatively on the Department in the misconduct section of the Department’s page.
  •  New York Police Department: This agency too faced its own Wikipedia scandal just a week prior when Capital New York revealed that IP addresses assigned to the NYPD were used to edit information about alleged police brutality, such as the Eric Garner case, as well as entries on stop-and-frisk and NYPD scandals on the NYPD’s Wikipedia page.

While anyone can create an account to edit Wikipedia pages, Wikipedia frowns on conflict of interest editing – which it describes as edits made by those with a direct interest in the topic.

This Is About Accountability – and Ultimately the Community’s Trust

The larger problem, however, is not disregarding Wikipedia’s guidelines, but that even if those using the police departments’ Internet connections were not asked to edit the departments’ pages by their superiors, those individuals were by default working in an official capacity simply by using the departments’ equipment.

It’s not much of a stretch to find parallels between a police department employee deleting information that casts officers in a negative light on the department’s Wikipedia page and an employee trying to cover up an incident of police misconduct by preventing that information from leaking to the press.  Both instances – if discovered – can breed mistrust within the communities the department serves.

What We Recommend

Police departments must mitigate this risk by developing social media policies that fully explain to their staff that to maintain their communities’ trust, they must be aware that their actions in real life and on the Internet, while using a department computer on their lunch break, or while sitting on their couch at home do reflect on the department and their fellow employees.

Do you agree? What’s your experience here?  Best practices in this area are evolving quickly.  If you are developing one or have a professional perspective that sheds light on these matters, feel free to call or email me.