Social media helps people stay apprised of world events, traffic, and sports as they happen. It has also become an integral tool for law enforcement. Despite its many positive applications, this technology brings challenges when it comes to policy, privacy, transparency, and officer safety.
For the last few years, the IACP Center for Social Media has offered an executive briefing program, an overview of what law enforcement leaders need to know about social media. During the briefings participants often share their agency’s experience with social media – the good and the bad. In 2011, one deputy chief shared with us their experience in losing an officer in the line of duty. Before that department was able to notify the immediate family, the name of the slain officer was shared through a post on a social media account. As a result, the officer’s spouse found out about her husband’s death by reading it on a social media platform. Sadly, we have heard similar stories from a number of agencies across the United States, including earlier this month. Yes, information about officer injured or killed in the line of duty is being shared on social media before the officer’s name is officially released by the agency, and often before an agency has completed the notification process. Certainly this compounds the family’s trauma. The issue of notification is one that law enforcement shares with the U.S. military
Note that while most of these cases involve a law enforcement officer posting this information, we have also been told stories where information about an injured officer is posted by a citizen observer, often within seconds. In one particular case, the department received a call from the injured officer’s wife within minutes (estimated to be less than ten minutes from the time of the accident) after their teenager saw a photograph of the unconscious officer posted by a peer. Fortunately in this case, the officer was not seriously injured.
While there is not a way to prevent this from happening, you may consider adding a reminder to notifications to your employees (including reservists, volunteers, and retired officers) and surrounding departments that the identity of the officer should not be released on social media prior to official release and to respect the agency’s notification process as spouses, reporters, and others may be following a law enforcement employee’s social media profile. Further, you shouldn’t assume that profile privacy settings are engaged or that your social media friends and followers are as vigilant in applying their privacy settings and safeguarding information. The U.S. military has developed some resources that you may find helpful in educating your employees and revisiting your family support and notification process:
Officer safety and wellness is of the utmost importance to the IACP. IACP's work in this area has led to the recent creation of the IACP Center for Officer Safety and Wellness
. And remember to please stay safe, whether on the street or online.