If it were like any other job, the selection process would be less rigorous, the academies would be motivational seminars, and everyone would be doing it. Law enforcement isn't like any other job, though. The dangers are real, the requirements are strict, the honor code is still intact, (despite what Hollywood, the news media, and television dramas might portray).

"Welcome to the most perishable career in America..." my first FTO said. He meant it too. "John Q. gets a DWI, it costs him about 3-4K. You get one, it costs you a career. John Q. punches a guy out, it costs him about $200, but it could cost you both career and, you and your employer a career's salary too in a lawsuit settlement." As is similar in other States, where I work, nearly any criminal conduct allegation could expose the suspect officer to additional time on a malfeasance or public corruption charge to boot.

We've all seen it, the first call some construction worker makes from the booking area is to his boss. "Bob's a good employee, he'll pay me his bail money back or I'll just take it out of his check." Try calling your Chief or Sheriff... 1. He'll already know about it and will be probably offering burnt sacrifices to the media gods hoping it won't make national news, and/or; 2. He'll ask you if you've lost your marbles thinking he's going to try to spring you from your predicament. He won't be happy, either way (and rightfully so). As unfair it might seem, whatever an officer with a given department does, whether on or off duty, bears a direct reflection upon the department in its entirety in the court of public opinion. The boss knows it, and so do other cops. Ever wonder why when one cop catches an allegation, others blaze trails through brick walls distancing themselves from him? Everything done by someone who wears the badge has a direct impact upon the one who pinned it on them and the other officers who also wear it. The public as a whole rarely differentiates. Fair? No. True? Yes.

Why is it then, we honestly believe that we aren't set apart just as much when it comes to what we publish on the internet? Some of us don't. They'll post pictures of scenes, suspects, or commentary on uses of force on MySpace, Facebook... then when the fallout comes, its a shock. It shouldn't be. We are expected to have the utmost discretion, professionalism, tact, and a judgment beyond reproach. According to our own code of ethics:

I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department. Whatever I see or hear of a confidential nature or that is confided to me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty.
As a law enforcement officer, we have to ask ourselves some hard questions about if, and how we indulge in online social networking. I personally do not indulge in facebook or Myspace anymore and feel my reasoning for not doing so is sound. Yes, I miss playing the games in the downtime, sending and receiving messages from friends and loved ones, but I choose not to expose myself, or even them, to public access or scrutiny, at least not voluntarily.

So, is it so hard to gather that when a cop posts a picture of himself raising hell in a bar parking lot, proudly hoisting aloft his 26th longneck after he just cited a guy for an public intox two blocks away the night before, the citizen is not supposed to be ill about it whatsoever? Of course not, we think... its a completely different situation, right? Really?

If that same cop calls his online persona "Billy Badge-ass", is he portraying a bravado so as to provoke a contemptuous response? Perhaps that isn't his intent, however, what is the risk of public perception? If he posts a derogatory comment aimed at a certain person, race, socio-economic class, or even a specific criminal act or acts, could that be skewed at some point and serve to taint a pending criminal case that he's involved in?

Our most important trait to possess as a law enforcement officer is our credibility. Whether we make the arrest or not, we are professional witnesses. We cannot allow ourselves to err intentionally, ever. The more information we offer up about ourselves, the more ammunition we give our adversaries to call our credibility into question. When given the benefits of an active social networking life, we just have to ask ourselves one question; are those benefits really worth the exposure?

As a modern law enforcement officer, we must manage risk and public relations as part of the more commonly accepted duties we perform. Some cops are excellent at it, others fail miserably at both. Those jobs aren't really difficult when put in proper perspective, rationally weigh risks versus benefits, remain sensitive to the perceptions of others, and most likely you'll be fine, (if not a bit more discretionary).

It is all common sense, actually. Few are demanding that a cop not partake in social networking to reconnect with old friends or distant family, but we have to bear in mind that anything that we post has the potential to be used negatively. When we enter this life of public service, we agree to be held to higher standards; and we should be. Granted, the job doesn't (and shouldn't) define us, however we should remember that our lives are no longer completely private anymore.

In a worst-case scenario, who are we really putting at risk when we connect with friends and family through such a wide open venue as the internet? Considering the flak that we take just from being who we are in the public eye, we expose our online contacts to such as well when we discuss our relationships, preferences, activities, and attitudes in an openly accessible venue like MySpace or Facebook.

So, some common sense suggestions for online networking for the law enforcement officer should really include the following:

1. Decide the risks of online networking, and determine if the benefits outweigh them.

2. If the decision is to proceed, check with departmental policies regarding such activity and obey them to the letter. Many departments have not drafted policies as of yet, in those cases, rely upon the guidance of a supervisor or division commander.

3. Investigate the security of the site(s) used. Use secure privacy features as much as possible.

4. Keep your business, business; and your personal, personal. Do not mix the two. Its OK to post pictures of fluffy the family poodle, but don't show thugs how police K9's are trained over publicly accessible venues.

5. Without the expressed authorization of your department's policies or supervisors, do not include any departmental information anywhere on your page. Even with such, remember that some people just do not like cops, and will target them, both online and off.

6. Don't put anything out there that you wouldn't want your mother, your boss, or your worst enemy to peruse.

7. Never put personal contact information publicly online, unless you really want every lunatic in the world to ask you how many donuts you eat in a shift.

8. Remember, you must assume that everything you post on a non-secure site is capable of being accessed by a vast audience; of people who's intentions vary just as widely. Act accordingly.

9. Use only sites that you are comfortable with, and have proven trustworthy; then, post using best judgment, always. Ask yourself, "could this bite me in the ass one day if its read by the wrong person?"

The above information consists of the opinions of the author, Countybear. All rights (and lefts) reserved.