There we were, with a deadline approaching and wondering what to write about, when a USA Today article appeared on the Officer.com website that provided perfect subject matter. Hot on the heels of an article we penned last month (Facebook: Friend or Foe? linked in below), it substantiated many points we had emphasized. Even better, its subject matter raised questions about the impact of departmental policy on police morale, an issue of particular interest to us. Sometimes Christmas really does come early!
The article, entitled Agencies Screening Recruits for Digital Dirt (linked below), reported that many law enforcement agencies have been looking closely into the social media accounts of police officer candidates (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.) as part of their pre-employment background investigation (BI), even requesting waivers be signed in order to go beyond established privacy settings. That the BI would include investigators doing a search for a candidate's social networking sites and then actually looking at them came as no surprise to me - if it is put out on the public domain for all to see, why not? That some departments have been asking their candidates to sign waivers allowing access beyond privacy settings does not really surprise me too much, either. After all, most of us happily signed off on allowing our prospective departments to dig through our personal, professional, academic, and financial pasts. Even though this is a relatively recent departure into far more personal aspects of a life, and one that may be reaching further than ever, some might convincingly argue it is a logical and necessary component of the personal background investigation.
Where the alarm bells sounded for me - and for a lot of Officer.com readers, judging by the comments posted to the article - had to do with the revelation that some agencies are now digging even further into the private lives of potential officers, demanding access to email and text message histories, private online passwords, and internet pseudonyms. Of course, a thorough background investigation of potential police officers is essential; there is far too much at stake to compromise on that. But the new depths these investigations are reaching raise an important question: Just how far is too far?
When we start digging into such areas as personal emails and text messages, are we crossing into circles of privacy that should remain sacrosanct? Even if we can legally demand access into such areas of a life - and I suspect that the voluntariness of the hiring process and use of waivers provides just such legal justification - does that mean we should? Although these intrusions are apparently limited to prospective hires, will some agencies see the opportunity to step off onto the slippery slope with existing employees, demanding similar unfettered access as a condition of continued employment? If they do, will whatever benefits they derive outweigh the possible consequences in terms of morale, trust, and maybe even driving good people away from the profession - or denying them entry based upon what is discovered? And following the slippery slope theme, what will be next for candidates?
Whether you believe background investigations of such depth are appropriate, or taking things too far, consider the issue of context. In 1986, many of my friends and I were obsessed with fascism. We spent countless hours poring over the acts, words, writings, and philosophies of Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, and Hirohito, and debating their meaning and impact in 1930s & 40s and into current times. If we had email back then, our message boxes would have been filled with exchanges about them. This went on for many months until early 1987, when we abruptly swung to the left and just as passionately devoted ourselves to the study of Bolshevism. Clearly, we were a potential band of bomb throwers intent on overthrowing the ruling class and instituting a new totalitarianism!
...Or maybe we were just a bunch of History majors.
My point is, whether looking at us individually or collectively, without context there is little to distinguish why we were so immersed in such topics - and the study of such things is in no way wrong - and any misunderstanding or bias in the BI could unfairly taint the perception of a candidate. Since most investigators have little time to seek out contextual nuances it is likely anyone they have doubts about will be quickly passed over. Imagine a background investigator with an imposing stack of files to work through who finds something that raises a flag, at least in his mind, in the email or text log of a prospective candidate. Will the investigator practice due diligence to make sure the context is understood or just pass over the prospect as too high-risk? What will prevent individual bias from intruding and ending the aspirations of a potentially excellent cop? In one of the comments to the story, made by someone identified only as Wes, this is illustrated along with an excellent legal consideration:
as a previous HR manager (nonLE) it was my understanding that many questions should be avoided to prevent risk of lawsuits. Who did you vote for? Is about the same as a background investigation reading your threads on loveobama.com or impeachbush.org. Etc etc (sic)
Of course, as others pointed out, the process is voluntary, no one is entitled to a police job, and candidates have the option of bypassing those agencies asking for access into such personal areas of life as emails and texts in favor of departments with less stringent BIs. All true, but I only see the trend likely to grow until becoming the rule rather than an exception; and if it does, for any of the sundry reasons agencies will come defend the practice, will their next logical step be that they press those of us already employed for access to our information for all the same reasons?
Cyberspace is still largely the Wild West for law enforcement, with its challenges far from fully realized, so maybe it does make sense to scrutinize the movement of new recruits - and current officers - through it. I imagine many will think so, and would be glad to consider their defense of the practice. At what point are returns on such in-depth probes so diminished their potential for harm outweighs any good they may yield?
We welcome your thoughts.