Most law enforcement officers I know are strong advocates of the Constitution and all the amendments. After all, we took a solemn oath to defend it as we protect and serve the public. But how do we balance the privacy and security of police officers and their families with the public’s right to know information? It is a question that may be a theoretical civics debate for some, but for cops, it’s a much more immediate personal safety issue.
Recently, we have seen individuals and organized groups exploiting the benefits of technology and public records databases to target LEOs and their families.
When Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, created the Metropolitan Police of London in 1828, he proposed that each constable have a badge with a number that would make him recognizable and therefore accountable to the public. We still use that honorable concept, in that LEOs are easily identifiable and held to a high standard for their personal behavior while wielding the authority they must have to do their job. They sign their names to arrest affidavits, and citizens who have an issue with an officer’s conduct usually have no problem identifying the individual who is the subject of their complaint. Recently, however, we have seen individuals and organized groups exploiting the benefits of technology and public records databases to target LEOs and their families. In Los Angeles, an activist group recently published the photos of over 9,000 officers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. LAPD did not give out the photos of active undercover officers, but certainly the ability of any of the 9,000 officers to ever work those assignments has been compromised. Another group of concerned citizens went on a “doxxing” campaign, publishing the home addresses and family members of officers they targeted. With facial recognition software and sharable databases widely available, there needs to be some new debates as we weigh the public’s right to know against the LEOs’ right to privacy. The ability to harass, intimidate, threaten or harm has never been easier. With a little personal information, a hacker can attack your financial, medical and family information, creating chaos with virtually no chance of ever being caught. Crazies and cop haters can stalk you and your family at will. It is a dangerous situation that has already cost lives and no doubt will only get worse. It also has a chilling effect on those entering this profession or those choosing to stay and accept this great risk.
There are some things that can be done to minimize that risk. Legislators must be urged to pass laws that protect LEOs and their families from harassment and violence. Administrators and unions need to educate politicians on the threat. Given that other public officials have also been targeted in some very high-profile violent attacks, it is easy to include LEOs in laws designed to protect personal information. Some states have laws that block the names and addresses of public officials, including law enforcement officers and their families, from appearing on searchable public records databases. This helps, but remember, it is not automatic. You must act to verify that your information is protected. Even once in place, a change in address, a new vehicle or even a voting precinct change can put your private information back on public display. Many agencies have cybercrimes units with experts in this ever-changing specialized field. Ideally, part of their mission in addition to child porn, solicitation and fraud investigations, should be to protect agency data and to educate and help protect individual members from becoming victims. There are some private companies that can contract these kinds of services. One such company I know is run by a deputy who is quite active online and teaches internet safety. Some agencies allow members to use the department address as their official residence to receive personal mail. If this is not available to you, consider renting a personal mailbox. I do this since I want to be easy to reach but hard to find. I like Facebook and hand out business cards routinely with my phone number and email address. But I don’t give out information about my home or family. It would not be impossible for someone specifically targeting me to find me. I don’t live in a bunker, nor do I want to. I just don’t want to make it too easy for some EDP to force me to utilize the next level of my personal safety plan. The only way to minimize your risk is constant vigilance. Be aware of what information you routinely give away online. Think like a predator and take an inventory of what makes you vulnerable. Google yourself. You may be surprised what is already out there. Privacy protection is important for everyone, but for us the stakes are much higher.
Take care of yourself and stay safe!