Monday, April 22, 2013
Police Dept. Sets Rules for Officers’ Use of Social Media
Published: March 28, 2013, NYT
Looking to avoid troublesome social media postings by its officers, theNew York Police Department has issued strict guidelines and ordered its members to comb through their personal profiles on Facebook, Twitter and other Web sites to ensure they are in line with the new rules.
As word of the order spread, police officers across the city checked their accounts to see if anything they had posted might run afoul of the new rules. Some edited their personal accounts to remove references to the department.
One officer, who had served in the military, replaced a Twitter profile photo of himself in his blue patrol hat with a portrait of himself in an Army uniform. Another wondered if his profile should include the word “detective.”
For years, officers faced relatively few official restrictions on social media, where many proudly posted photos of themselves in uniform and listed their job as “N.Y.P.D.” Indeed, the Police Department has lagged behind other jurisdictions in formalizing rules for personal online behavior.
“Such an order is not unexpected,” said Roy T. Richter, president of the Captains Endowment Association, the union that represents high-ranking officers. “The only surprise is that the order was not put out before now.”
The order followed recent embarrassing online activity at the Fire Department in which two of its members, including the fire commissioner’s son, wrote racially inflammatory Twitter posts. Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, however, said on Thursday that his order had been in the works long before.
The Fire Department is drafting its own social media policy, a spokesman said.
In issuing the new rules, Mr. Kelly sought to motivate officers to scrutinize their postings in what appeared to be an effort to defuse any lurking social media land mines.
The three-page order dated Monday details online behavior that could land officers in trouble, including posting photos of other officers, tagging them in photos or putting photos of themselves in uniform — except at police ceremonies — on any social media site.
Members of the department are also “urged not to disclose or allude to their status” with it. Doing so could make that person ineligible for certain sensitive roles.
Other regulations were more straightforward: Do not post images of crime scenes, witness statements or other nonpublic information gained through work as a police officer; do not engage with witnesses, victims or defense lawyers; do not “friend” or “follow” minors encountered on the job.
Violations of the order can result in disciplinary action, including dismissal. Officers with existing social media accounts are ordered to “immediately ensure that their personal social media site is reviewed and in compliance with this order.”
The order, which builds on the city’s general social media policy and was reported on Thursday in The Daily News, comes a year and a half after officers posted insulting Facebook comments about the West Indian American Day Parade. In that case, more than a dozen members of the department were disciplined.
It also barred local commanders from sending out posts without approval from the department. Last year, one Brooklyn precinct commander was criticized for posting photographs of men about to be released from custody to a Twitter account maintained by the precinct.
“I think the captain’s actions were actually another example of the innovative thinking of our precinct commanders,” Mr. Richter said on Thursday. “He was thinking outside the box and he should be commended.”
Mr. Kelly said the order was intended partly to avoid confusion between the department’s official statements on social media, and personal statements by officers. He likened the rules to those put in place by many other agencies and private businesses.
“One of the issues in a complex business like this is that people say they’re part of an organization, this organization, and make a statement that the public can interpret as policy,” he said. “You can’t run an organization like that.”
But, he said, the department had not assigned anyone to comb through social media sites looking for violations; the new rules would be enforced when the department learned of potentially troublesome postings.
The guidelines appeared to broadly match those adopted by other big city departments around the country.
The Detroit Police Department issued its guidelines in 2011 after an officer posted photos of a suspect wielding a machete on his Facebook page. That same year, the Albuquerque police also barred department members from identifying themselves on social media. That order came shortly after an officer, involved in a fatal police shooting, was seen on Facebook describing his job as “human waste disposal.”