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Facebook : Police Departments, Unions Try to Control Officers on Social Media

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07/28/2019 | 10:15am EDT

By Dan Frosch

Police departments and law-enforcement unions around the country are rushing to strengthen policies and issue warnings to members in an effort to avoid a growing spotlight on officers' offensive social-media posts.

The moves follow a tide of recent reports of derogatory and hostile online comments by police officers who in some cases now face discipline for posting racist images or threats against public officials.

Meanwhile, representatives of rank-and-file officers are raising questions about what the limits should be on police who want to share their views as private citizens.

"We all have a first amendment right," said Michael London, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. He recently advised his members to refrain from posting anything people could find "remotely offensive," after 12 Phoenix officers were assigned to nonenforcement roles pending results of an investigation into posts that included offensive images of Mexicans and Muslims.

"I think the challenge is when guys become frustrated and want to say something on their personal account, versus what the department and what the city's opinion of that post might be," Mr. London said.

Law-enforcement experts said such posts generally aren't subject to free speech protections because officers are typically barred from behavior that reflects badly on their department, whether on or off duty.

Phoenix is one of several cities where offensive comments by law enforcement have been highlighted by the Plain View Project, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has created a database of social-media posts by law-enforcement officers.

In Philadelphia, the Plain View Project said it found offensive posts made by more than 300 current officers. Police Commissioner Richard Ross has launched social-media training for all the city's officers and said the department will audit social-media content to root out any more problems. He has moved to fire 13 officers over posts on Facebook that encouraged police brutality, insulted Islam and intimated violence toward transgender individuals, and he has said he was "angry and disappointed" by the posts.

In Dallas, another city where Plain View found offensive posts, 34 officers are being investigated by the city's police department for online comments that encouraged violence by law enforcement and were demeaning toward racial and religious minorities. The local police union is cautioning officers to post only comments they are certain won't get them in trouble, said Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association.

"The officers are confused on where the standard is. Where is that line?" said Mr. Mata. "Do they have a right to privacy at all?"

Mr. Mata said that while he agreed some posts were offensive, he believed many others weren't offensive if the full context was included. He noted the 2016 shooting rampage in Dallas, where five officers were killed by a sniper, continued to leave some officers upset with police critics.

The Dallas Police Department last month sent out a "training bulletin" urging officers to review its social-media policy, which says employees can express themselves as private citizens as long as they don't use language that affects their ability to do their jobs or reflects negatively on the department.

In a recent video on the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association's Facebook page, Mr. London said the union was looking at recommending a service to officers that would "scrub your name from the internet." Mr. London said the service, which officers would pay for on their own, isn't intended to erase social-media posts but rather to protect officers' personal information from being stolen or exploited.

Plain View was launched two years ago by Emily Baker-White, an attorney, and has since become a project of nonpartisan journalism group Injustice Watch. It released its findings in collaboration with BuzzFeed News.

Ms. Baker-White said her team has found examples of police officers deactivating their Facebook accounts, both during the course of the research and since Plain View's database was released on June 1.

Earlier this month, the police chief in Gretna, La., fired two officers over an online post suggesting that Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez be shot. Chief Arthur Lawson called the incident an "embarrassment to the department" and said he would be intensifying training. The post was first reported by the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate.

"A lot of people use Facebook, and a lot of people may have thought they were expressing their First Amendment rights," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "But this is now drawing the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior."

Write to Dan Frosch at [email protected]

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