|Should Probation/Parole Officers Be On Social Media?|
|By Art Bowker, Cybercrime Specialist|
There are two schools of thought for those in corrections and/or law enforcement when it comes to social media. The first is to avoid it at all cost. In short, don’t get on it in the first place. This position seemed natural for those that entered the field before social media took off in the early 2000’s. Why get involved in it when they have done fine without it for 20 or more years. Granted some of these folks are a bit behind the learning curve concerning social media and what can be gained from understanding its usage. The upside is many of these individuals are likely retiring and/or near retirement and their lack of tech savvy is being replaced by those who grew up with the Internet. Today’s reality is most of those now entering the profession have had one or more profiles for years before entering the field. Does anyone honestly expect them to give up their accounts? Of course not. This growing group of new officers and those who declined to opt out as suggested, leads us to the second school of thought, specifically it is okay to have social media provided you exercise caution. But what does “caution” mean when it comes to social media? Well, let’s explore it.
For most the primarily line of defense is to lock-down all those privacy settings for their social media. Don’t let anyone who is not a “friend” or connection see anything about you or what you post. Also, don’t let yourself be “tagged” without your permission and make sure your posts likewise can’t be shared without your authorization. This is a good start, but it must be continually tweaked as social media sites like to make changes to their privacy settings (If you don’t know your profile’s privacy/security setting look to the help menu within your social media profile). Unfortunately, many users, including officers, consider having locked down settings is all they need to exercise caution. Well I can’t impress upon anyone this is not exercising caution, particularly if you are very active online. Let me explain what I am talking about.
I have seen officers who appear to have their setting locked down post things that their bosses would find very troubling, such as details about offender encounters, pictures of home visits, searches, etc. These kinds of posts and the commentary that often comes with them appear on the officer’s timeline. For some it doesn’t stop there. There are numerous officer only groups on various social media sites that restrict access to employed and/or retired officers. Some even go so far as to require a picture of official identification to gain access so that those interacting in the group have some level of confidence that their posts wouldn’t be shared. Here is a sample of posts that are all too frequently posted on these groups: Jokes about the circumstances of an offender’s arrest/revocation, details of office or home visits; negative comments about individual’s actual booking pictures; and posts soliciting comments about how many have angered defense counsels in courts. One officer noted in one post during an office day:
"… somethings my mind wanders to a happy place where I am allowed to punch people in the throat.” In a reply the same officer noted they sometimes get angry with victims too."
I get that officers need a place to vent frustrations and these groups provide that space. But one has got to be naive to think that any online group can prevent online posts from seeing the light of day. Here is how it will happen.
Most likely, a fellow group member will alert someone at the person’s employer of a troubling post, either because they work there or because they know someone that does. In fact, if they work at the same location, they likely have an ethical duty to do so, which clearly overrides any group site policy. The next scenario will occur if a group member happens to find themselves in legal trouble (civil and/or criminal) and their social media posts become subject of discovery. No online group policy will prevent legal discovery.
Imagine the officer who posted they wish they were “allowed to punch people in the throat” defending themselves from an excessive force law suit. Heck, any officer might have trouble explaining themselves in such a lawsuit if they are an active member of an online group where such comments are common place. You get the picture.
So we must go beyond just making sure our privacy settings are secure. We must also be cautious of what we post online. How will it play with one’s supervisor or agency head? How will it appear if it comes out in a law suit? We also must be careful of what groups we join online. If the group regularly allows members to engage in discussions that show disdain for offenders, should a correctional “professional” be in that group? I will leave you to resolve that issue yourselves. Make no mistake, I am no advocating that officers discard social media. I am only advocate using it cautiously and safely, whether is its personal, family or professional safety. On that note I left a cigar lit somewhere. Be safe out there.
For those interested in using social media as part of one’s duties I suggest looking at the American Probation and Parole Association’s Issue Paper, The Use of Social Media in Community Corrections.
Mr. Bowker has over 27 years’ experience in law enforcement/corrections and is recognized as an expert in managing cyber-risk in offender populations. In addition to co-writing Investigating Internet Crimes, 1st Edition: An Introduction to Solving Crimes in Cyberspace, (Syngress, November 2013), he is also the author of The Cybercrime Handbook for Community Corrections: Managing Offender Risk in the 21st Century. In 2013, he was recognized by the Federal Probation and Pretrial Officers Association (FPPOA) and the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) for his contributions in managing cybercrime risk in offender populations.
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