Roadkill on the Info Highway

Don’t unwittingly end up as roadkill on the information highway.

For the past two months, we’ve looked at officers’ on-duty and off-duty use of social media and Internet postings (see links below), including:

  • Their rights and responsibilities;
  • The limits to their free speech;
  • What comments may get them sued for defamation; and
  • What comments may get them disciplined, including fired.

Now we’re going to look at some stories of real cops who hadn’t figured out ahead of time what we’ve been talking about here. If you like happy endings, you may not wish to proceed.

Bikini Wearing Cop vs. Bikini Wearing Cop Car
Can a bikini get you fired? That may depend on how and where you wear it.

Let’s say one of you is a female deputy sheriff. In your off-duty time you philanthropically participate in a charity bikini car wash fundraiser wearing, well, a skimpy bikini. The fundraiser is marketed as Tits-n-Tats. The event also features employees from a topless strip club.

The other of you is a male police officer who takes his private car to the fundraiser, then decides to take his patrol car. A photo of your patrol car with the scantily-clad car washers draped on the hood surfaces on Facebook.

This happened in Moncks Corner, S.C—population 7,044. The ending is a mixed bag. No job action was taken against the deputy sheriff. A statement issued by the Sheriff’s Office said, “She was involved in the event as a private citizen and did not violate the law, BC [Berkley County] SO or county’s policies.”

The police officer is out of a job. It’s unknown if he was fired or asked to resign. His chief said there were policies governing take-home cruisers and allowing bikini-clad women to be photographed next to one violated those policies.

I ask you, dear readers, if you think the punishment would’ve been the same if the photo hadn’t been circulated on Facebook, thus garnering public attention? That is, would the officer have been fired for violating the policies governing the use of take-home cruisers if the violation had been known only within the department and hadn’t made it onto the Internet?

They Weren’t Thinking
An Indiana state trooper resigned and an Indianapolis Metro PD Officer was suspended for what all would agree were some stupid postings on the trooper’s personal Facebook page.

The trooper bragged about heavy drinking and posted photos of his banged-up patrol car with the comment, “Oops! Where did my front end go?” Perhaps the most infamous photo showed the police officer friend holding a gun to the trooper’s head as he described drinking lots of beer with his buddies.

The trooper also weighed in on his work and people who resist arrest. He referred to himself as a “garbage man” and “I pick up trash for a living.” Commenting on an incident in which Fresno police officers punched a homeless man during his arrest, the trooper posted, “Let someone, homeless or not, try and stab me … he’ll probably end up shot. These people should have died when they were young anyway, I’m just doing them a favor.”

According to a major with the ISP, the state’s biggest concern was that the trooper may have been Facebooking on duty. I’m biting my keyboard here. How does personal use of a computer (not unlike a personal phone call) on department time rise above concern about the content here? Maybe it’s because, in the absence of any specific social media policy, using a computer for personal communication on tax payer time was the only violation.

Asked what the trooper and IMPD officer could have been thinking, an IMPD sergeant spokesperson said, “They weren’t thinking. It was an error in judgment…so now there has to be accountability and that’s what we’re doing.”

With MySpace Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?
A well-known roadkill on the information highway was Lexington Officer Joshua Cromer, who stopped and arrested country singing star John Michael Montgomery. Montgomery ended up charged with DUI, possessing a controlled drug and two counts of carrying a concealed weapon.

Friends, mostly fellow cops, congratulated Cromer on his MySpace page and made fun of Montgomery by posting a doctored photo portraying Cromer as an adoring fan.

Complaints about Cromer’s site sparked the brass into checking out other officers’ MySpace pages. The pages contained disparaging comments about the citizenry, gays and the mentally disabled. Cromer was dismissed and five of his MySpace friends were suspended.

Montgomery copped a plea to just the DUI charge with a $660 fine and court costs. If you don’t think his attorneys’ subpoena for the officers’ MySpace pages had anything to do with that deal, I’ve got some costume jewelry I’d like to show you.
Detective’s Facebook Comments Targeted by Gun Advocates
An East Palo Alto detective came under fire for posting disparaging Facebook comments about gun advocates carrying unloaded weapons. The California gun law at issue apparently prohibits carrying a concealed weapon without a license but permits open display of a firearm in a holster, but it’s illegal for the gun to be loaded in most cases.

Gun advocates say they’re open-carrying unloaded firearms because they can’t get concealed carry permits. Police say the practice is dangerous because officers can’t tell whether a gun is loaded and what an armed person’s intentions are.

The detective got caught in the cross fire when he posted back and forth with a Facebook friend about the issue and apparently joked that an unloaded carrier should be “proned out,” reminded that “turds will jack him for his gun in a heartbeat” and if he makes a move …”—two weeks off!”

A gun rights advocate and lawyer posted a screen grab of the Facebook thread and a link to the detective’s Facebook page on his own website and urged his readers to complain to East Palo Alto council members. They did. They also railed in a thread that continued for 45 pages.

The chief said the detective wouldn’t be fired but he would be disciplined. The Open Carry advocacy group said they were “ecstatic about the decision.”

Officer Gets His Goat—and Some Discipline
Southfield is a suburb of Detroit. Imagine you’re a Southfield cop and you get a call about two baby goats playing on a rooftop. It’s illegal to keep goats inside city limits so you respond to the densely populated neighborhood. The baby goats are really cute so you post a picture of them on your personal Facebook page.

Any problem? Well, Southfield PD didn’t have specific policies about social media sites, but their policies do require officers to keep evidence and investigations confidential. In disciplining the responding officer, the Southfield Police Chief said, “[T]hat’s a photograph of the crime scene.”

No Good MySpace Deed Goes Unpunished
Imagine you’re a great school resource officer, well liked by the kids and school staff. Like many school resource officers, you set up a MySpace page to further communicate with students. School leaders, parents and your department are supportive as you widely share safety tips with the kids and also receive tips that help investigations. Then it’s discovered that students who go to your MySpace page can link to pornographic material.

That’s what happened to Officer John Nohejl. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing but the experience left a lasting imprint:

“I tried to do a good thing for kids. But I got blind-sided. I’d checked out this person’s profile and it seemed OK, so I allowed him on as a friend. … [H]e went back onto MySpace and maliciously changed his profile so that in a matter of three clicks from my page, kids could be exposed to this pornography. … It’s a good lesson for cops. You can be held responsible for things that are beyond your control. Who can possibly go through the profiles of hundreds of MySpace friends every day to make sure that someone’s not doing the same thing?” 

Big Stakes
There’s more at stake here than individual officers as roadkill. There’s the tarnishing of entire agencies and the distrust of the community that other officers must bear.

There’s also officer safety. As Santa Monica Police Chief Tim Jackman recently commented at a SMILE (Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement) Conference, all safety precautions can go to the wind with one click of the mouse. The chief was speaking of a recent incident in which a traffic stop of a suspected drunk driver ended in a gunfight that sent the officer to the hospital with a bullet wound to his hip. The suspect fled and was later shot before he could be detained by a SWAT team.

It turned out the driver was a previous felon, had been in jail for murder and was a notorious gang member. He was also sent to the same hospital as the officer who stopped him. A quick and sound decision was made to not identify the officer or where he was.

But when the chief logged onto Facebook at home that night he found a comment from a retired fellow officer who had recently moved away. Unaware, the well-meaning retired officer IDed the wounded officer to the world.

The safety of officers’ families is also at stake. The profession prepares officers to have a plan for their families if a public safety threat occurs when an officer is off-duty on a family outing. Officers similarly need to be trained about potential risks when they post photos of their spouses and children on a social media site, talk about where they work and go to school, and when they’re all going to be gone on vacation.

Accountability Needs to be Shared
The Indianapolis Metro PD sergeant was right: there has to be accountability. I daresay most recruits eating at a restaurant the day before they start the academy, don’t intuitively sit with their backs to the wall, evaluate lines of fire and plan their cover and escape routes. They’re taught these things until it becomes second nature to them. But it’s not common sense. Commoners don’t routinely exercise such sense.

Relying on common sense to take the place of training and policies specifically dealing with the risks of social media seems equally ill-advised. Especially since the common sense of social media that many recruits and young officers grew up in is a much lower standard than they’ll be expected to meet as law enforcement officers.

I don’t equate the examples above. But they all have something in common—officers weren’t thinking. They weren’t thinking about the special circumstances of their work as it interfaces with an ever-evolving technology that is playing an ever-growing role in officers’ personal and professional lives. Yes, Officer Nohejl was innocent and unsuspecting, just like a recruit at a restaurant before he attends the Academy. But can we afford unsuspecting police officers? 

The profession and departments bear responsibility for training officers and recruits to think in this area just as they train them in other legal and tactical aspects of the job. The occasional SMILE conference isn’t enough.

Stay Tuned 
Next month we’ll look at what officers and agencies need to help them safely navigate the intricacies of a ubiquitous, ever changing World Wide Web.


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