From seemingly innocuous attempts at humor to venting political frustration, social media platforms have become popular venues to share thoughts, photos and opinions. But for cops, it’s a tricky environment where personal expression may hinder professional appearances. In California alone, there have been several instances of officers reprimanded or dismissed this year because of controversial posts. After the George Floyd incident, sheriff’s deputies from different departments were disciplined for sharing a doctored photo showing a Black porn star with a knee on Floyd’s neck. A union of prison guards was called out for an online video of a Black legislator’s face covered by a bull’s-eye. In Long Beach, a probationary officer was fired after managers learned he’d posted a picture of his baton over a bloody sidewalk during this year’s protests. Long Beach Assistant Chief of Police Wally Hebeish told the Los Angeles Times that the department couldn’t tolerate the officer’s conduct.
“We weren’t looking for people to become angry with us, but that’s the type of emotion that image can create,” Hebeish explained.
Plumas County Sheriff’s Deputy Ed Obayashi, who has developed California’s first training course on personal social media for officers, said cops often are surprised by the negative reaction.
“When I do these investigations, I get these excuses all the time, ‘No, I’m not racist, it’s funny,’” Obayashi said. “There is no excuse. There is no justification. What circumstances can you come up with to justify such postings? There aren’t any, and that’s why chiefs and sheriffs are tearing their hair out.”
For cops, social media is a tricky environment where personal expression may hinder professional appearances. In California alone, there have been several instances of officers reprimanded or dismissed this year because of controversial posts.
Some incidents have ventured beyond bad taste and into the realm of possible criminal activity. In San Jose, four officers have been implicated in an ongoing investigation of a private Facebook forum that included racist and anti-Muslim content. In Tracy, California, a part-time standards officer for the police department was fired for participating in an online forum that allegedly contained threats to a journalist’s life. The FBI is investigating the incident.
Of course, law enforcement professionals are entitled to First Amendment protections of free speech, but in 2018, a California appellate court concluded that derogatory and inflammatory posts that cause “potential disruptiveness” to a department’s operation could justify discipline. And agencies are updating their social media conduct policies to reflect a more explicit stance on what’s appropriate and what isn’t. In August, the California Highway Patrol issued a memo to management, advising individuals “to treat every post as if it will end up on the front page of a major newspaper, because it may,” states the Los Angeles Times.
Immediately following the November election, Marshall, Arkansas, Police Chief Lang Holland resigned after posts to the alternative platform Parler came to light. In the now-deleted messages, it appears Holland called for violence against Democrats and shared memes from the conspiracy theory QAnon.