This past June, the Plain View Project, a watchdog group composed of Philadelphia attorneys, published the results of its research into social media posts by thousands of law enforcement officers that are often discriminatory and violent in nature. Of the 6,600 active officers in Philadelphia’s 21 different police districts, 2,900 active officers – more than 40 percent of the agency’s entire workforce – had their social media content flagged as inappropriate and offensive by the group, which also implicated another several hundred former officers in its exposè.

In today’s highly political and polarized society, social media has become an easy way for many to advocate and oppose issues important to them and, sadly, as a platform to spread hate and bigotry. When a police officer posts an opinion that others interpret or perceive as espousing dislike or ridicule of those whom officers are sworn to protect, the public’s confidence in an already fragile environment erodes. Departments must issue and enforce clear policy direction on appropriate online behavior just as they require officers to understand and model public behavior standards defined in the department’s Code of Conduct.

Officers’ Social Media Personas Take Center Stage

The project’s data was first compiled and then published on a dedicated website. The group hoped that sharing this disturbing information would highlight officers’ use of social media as an important component in the ongoing national dialogue about law enforcement. News of its existence was widespread.

Shortly thereafter, the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) placed 72 officers on administrative duty while an investigation into inflammatory social media posts was conducted. PPD Commissioner Richard Ross announced that several dozen of the 72 officers will be disciplined and some fired. The Philadelphia NAACP specifically called on Commissioner Ross to terminate those who have clearly violated the PPD’s social media policies.

For many groups, social media can be a liability. Though not all posts are created while the person is in the specific environment, the individual’s content will always be intrinsically associated with their public persona and actions. Many employers establish a social media policy to clarify what won’t be tolerated. Clear boundaries can help many officers to comply, but in the case of the PPD, many did not.

Since social media’s popularity has grown exponentially in the last decade, there is little precedent for laws and disciplinary actions regarding online behavior specific to police officers. As a result, the burden falls internally on the department to create a policy for online activities. Specifically, in the PPD Directive, the following three parts of the social media policy are relevant.

  • B: “…[E]ach member must strive to maintain public trust and confidence, not only in his or her professional capacity, but also in his or her personal and on-line activities. Moreover, as police personnel are necessarily held to a higher standard than general members of the public, the on-line activities of employees of the police department shall reflect such professional expectations and standards.”
  • I: “Employees are prohibited from using ethnic slurs, profanity, personal insults; material that is harassing, defamatory, fraudulent, or discriminatory, or other content or communications that would not be acceptable in a City workplace under City or agency policy or practice.”
  • J: “Employees are prohibited from displaying sexually explicit images, cartoons, jokes, messages or other material that would be considered in violation of the City Policy Preventing Sexual Harassment in City Government.”

Balancing Public Behaviors, Private Personas and First Amendment Rights

Though these three policies are clear, the current social media matter in Philadelphia seems more complicated. The department hired a team of lawyers to sift through the Plain View Project’s content to determine which posts fall under First Amendment protections. The investigation in Philadelphia could potentially shift how social media is handled within law enforcement and shed light on the creation of necessary policies surrounding officers’ online behavior. Departments must pay attention to this and put policies in place that delineate online behavior without infringing on the First Amendment rights of their officers.

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