One of the best values for law enforcement agencies who use social media is the interaction that takes place between the agency and members of the community. Unfortunately, many agencies that use social media platforms, like Facebook, have opted to not allow comments thereby stifling community engagement. Reasons cited for not allowing comments vary but primarily fall into two categories. The first is the fear of criticism of the department. This will not be discussed in this post. The second reason is the fear that inappropriate comments using vulgar language, racial epitaphs, or derogatory remarks will be posted.
Recently, one of the people who “likes” the Dunwoody Police Department on Facebook posted several comments which were derogatory in nature and were clearly racially insensitive. The comments were posted several times over the course of 3-4 weeks. The comments did not use profanity nor did they use any racial epitaphs. However, the comments were clearly racially biased toward African-Americans. Several open comments complaining about the offensive comments were posted as well. A comment was posted by the department reminding everyone to not post comments that were negative toward a group of people or racially insensitive. The department also removed several of the offensive comments. A message was sent to the person posting the comments advising they would be blocked from the department’s Facebook page if any similar comments were posted in the future.
Unfortunately, some people have difficulty changing their habits, especially bad habits. The subject again posted a derogatory comment toward African-Americans on the department’s Facebook page in response to a post by the department with details of a recent arrest. The department immediately deleted the comment and blocked this user from accessing the Facebook page of the Dunwoody Police Department.
As law enforcement’s use of social media continues to grow, many departments will face the important decision of whether they allow comments, the criteria used to remove comments if they are removed at all, and under what circumstances they will block a user if at all.
As mentioned previously, one of the key benefits of using social media is the engagement it creates with members of the community. If comments are not allowed on sites such as Facebook then the agency is missing a huge piece of the social media return on investment. In addition, the question of whether the department should even use social media if no comments are allowed may even be appropriate. If no comments are allowed, the site is simply a bulletin board with no way to interact and no way to determine if what you are posting is even relevant or important to those who “like” your department.
If you allow comments, you must decide if you are going to allow all comments or limit them in some way. This is a potential minefield. You should never remove comments simply because they are critical of your department or any of your staff. Instead, focus on comments that use profanity, racial epitaphs, or that are derogatory in nature toward a group of people. Recently, a lawsuit was filed against the Honolulu Police Department for deleting comments on their Facebook page
and the department has changed their comment policy as a result
. A best practice is to post your guidelines for removing comments on your social media site. In addition, a department could ask the person to repost the comments without the language or inappropriate content. A careful and well thought out approach to inappropriate comments will protect those young and impressionable individuals on your site as well as those groups targeted by the hateful or insensitive comments.
The decision to block a user is one that should not be taken lightly. Invariably, there may be individuals on your social media site who do not want to play by the rules. It is important that you have a clearly defined policy of how to deal with them. How tolerant will you be? How many inappropriate posts will you allow before blocking them? These are important considerations. Your answers will likely depend on the norms of your community.
When it comes to these sensitive issues, there are no hard and fast rules. There are few, if any, legal precedents established at this point in time. Instead, most agencies must get legal advice from their attorneys and act in what they believe is the best interest of their department and their community.