Employee Social Media Activities and the Roanoke, Virginia, Police Department’s Strategy (Part Two)

Guest Blogger: Chris Perkins, Chief of Police, Roanoke, Virginia, Police Department

Part one of this blog post was published on Monday, August 15.

The Roanoke Police Department’s command staff, working with the city attorney’s office, used existing case law to develop a policy relating to information disclosed by Roanoke police employees in the social media arena. During this process, it was recognized that an overly broad policy tinkering with what an employee could and could not publish away from work was unlikely to survive court review. The command staff’s focus was to cleanly and simply set parameters for the publication of information pursuant to law.

An additional resource to establish these parameters was found in the Police Code of Conduct, which is used by almost all police agencies throughout the country. The central point to the code is “whatever a police officer sees, hears, or learns of that is a confidential nature will be kept secret unless the performance of duty or legal provision requires otherwise.” It became clear that the department could not expect its officers to uphold the Code of Conduct while simultaneously allowing the publication of information that has been learned in the course of their duties to remain unregulated within the social media arena. Equally significant is case law in which courts have restricted the rights of government employees who identified themselves as police officers or displayed their department badges, uniforms, or uniform patches.

In May 2010, with six months of monitoring and legal review, Assistant City of Roanoke Attorney Tim Spencer, Deputy Chief Tim Jones, and I conducted the first of six sessions on the pitfalls of social media. This three-person team needed to assure employees that this was not big brother, but rather convey the message of “This is for your own good.”

As the Roanoke Police Department was instituting a social media policy, so was the city of Roanoke; however, the city’s policy was designed for the general workforce, and the police department needed a policy that spoke to the image of the department and the confidential information that is available to officers and civilian employees. To set the tone of the training, several law enforcement social media situations were critiqued.

The basic message: Do not post anything you would not want to see in the local newspaper the next day.

IACP 2011 has special workshops covering social media issues for law enforcement. For information, to register, and to secure housing, visit http://www.theiacpconference.org.

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