Disinhibition, Social Media, and Law Enforcement Professionals
With the age demographic of police becoming younger, I am witnessing the trap of disinhibition, and an officer's use of social media while on duty. Those in law enforcement need to be more aware to this issue, given that I believe it can come back and haunt you in a Police Act or Privacy Act complaint.
Over the past few years, I have noticed more police departments using social media in a very managed way to help connect with their community. This is something that I fully endorse. Often, departments will dedicate a full time or part time member to such a position to enhance this connectivity with those they serve.
I have, however, seen an increasing frequency where members, outside of a social media position, will now use their own personal accounts to post pictures and information that they are involved in, or come across, while on duty. Most of these postings are of no real concern and show the human side of policing. Some pictures, however, show content that can lead to the identity of offenders, and even victims, that can have very significant consequences both publicly and privately, given its public disclosure and amplification on social media.
As a hypothetical example, an officer posts a picture of my vehicle to their public and personal social media account that is very identifiable to me because of its uniqueness. The officer then attaches a written text where they advised that the vehicle was towed and impounded for 30 days and that the driver also received a 90-day driver suspension for alcohol impairment. Now let's say that I am the owner of that vehicle, I wasn't driving, but I did lend it to a friend. The next day I get called into my bosses office where I am questioned about this incident, given that they saw it on social media, and the rest of the office is now also talking about it which is now affecting my reputation and maybe even my current employment, or a job that I am seeking. Could this be grounds for a Police Act or a Privacy Act complaint, or maybe even a civil action taken against the department? I would argue yes it would.
Here in British Columbia, Under the BC Police Act Section 77(3)(i) it states:
(3) Subject to subsection (4), any of the conduct described in the following paragraphs constitute a disciplinary breach of public trust when committed by a member:
"improper disclosure of information", which is intentionally or recklessly, disclosing, or attempting to disclose, information that is acquired by the member in the performance of duties as a member
Under the BC Personal Information and Privacy Act, section 18 clearly outlines when disclosure of personal information obtained by a public body (which a police department is) can publicly disclose a person's information, that would be considered to be private and not publicly available.
Given these two Provincial Acts, it's my suggestion that there would be grounds for a valid complaint, in the above noted hypothetical scenario, by the owner of this vehicle no matter if he was driving or not. The posting of such a picture and text can clearly identify an offender and also publicly disclose actions taken by police in a public way. Do you want to be the officer who takes on this legal challenge? I can guarantee you that such an action is going to take place given some of the postings I am now witnessing by police members in their personal social media accounts.
Some will argue that it was the driver's fault and they need to take responsibilities for their actions, "all I did was post a picture of what happened." I agree, but is it a law enforcement professional’s job to publicly shame and convict in the court of public opinion via Social Media. Public "shaming" is becoming a real legal issue given social media, and those in law enforcement need to be alive to this real legal issue.
When it comes to posting pictures that show your positive interactions with the public then post away, but when it comes to posting pictures involving suspects or victims, and or their property, tread lightly and cautiously, as there may be significant legal and administrative consequences ahead.
Officer survival is more than just use of force and police tactics, it is also about the emotional, psychological, physical, and professional survival in the legal arena as well. We may live by the sword, but we are judged by the pen. Forewarned is forearmed, don't let the disinhibition effect of Social Media come back and haunt you professionally.
Digital Food For Thought
The White Hatter