Law enforcement officers must keep an invisible barrier between themselves and the outside world to protect their homes and loved ones. Back in the days before personal computers became common, my husband and I - both officers - made a point of separating our public and private lives. We had two small kids and were, admittedly, a little paranoid about some of the people we'd arrested.
Imagine my surprise when I received a phone call at home from a guy I'd put in jail. He called my home to discuss his case - I still don't know how he got my number. Not only was it unlisted, but we were also very careful about giving it out. The call was cause for concern, especially after a detective in another county whom I had known was shot and killed when he answered his own doorbell.
Think about how easy it would be for someone to get your home number in the so-called Information Age: access to your phone number or the numbers of your officers, photographs of them and their families, their addresses and even a map right to their homes. It's a chilling thought and it should be, particularly in the case of undercover operatives.
Ask yourself these questions: Do your officers or their families engage in social networking on the Internet? Have they taken part in online discussions groups, MySpace-type Web sites or listservs? Do they have home pages or blogs? Does any of their information and/or photos appear on the blogs or Web sites of their friends or extended family members?
Photographs from a reunion, a wedding, a newspaper' story that's been archived. Pictures posted by kids on My Space or their blogs. Images caught by a cell phone camera during a police raid or while answering a call. All of these can blow a cover or create a target.
It's virtually impossible to prevent a Net presence these days, but you can see what's out there, and assess your departmental personnel's personal vulnerability. Discover what a determined criminal can learn about you, your officers and your families. Here are a few suggestions:
- Run what's called a vanity search. Put your name in quotes, like this: "Carole Moore" and do a search on the major engines, like www.google.com or www.dogpile.com. Search blogs with www.technorati.com, an engine designed specifically for that purpose.
- Check and see how much searchable information your state has online. Does it allow a computer user to search DMV or other records? What about registered voters?
- Check your county's tax database. If there's a property tax database that's searchable, your name, address, tax evaluations and payment status, as well as the type of vehicles you own or drive may be available. Some counties even have maps that show exactly where the property is located.
- If your county doesn't have a map showing your home's location online, check out Google Maps. It will.
- Look for photographs of yourself and your family via Google Images.
- Look up your phone number and e-mail address on www.whitepages.com. See if your children are listed.
This is simply a sampling of how much information is out there about yourself, your officers and your families. And while the World Wide Web not only makes your job easier with its wealth of research material, it also can expose private information to people who might misuse it.
Know what's already out there and keep it from growing. Even better, see what can be changed or removed. Some jurisdictions allow officers to use post office boxes in lieu of street addresses. Check and see if yours is one of them.