Law enforcement officers and Facebook

In May of 2012, Texas Corrections Sgt. Heath Lara was fired for “friending” an inmate on Facebook. Sgt. Lara appealed, claiming that he went to high school with the inmate, and had no idea the man was incarcerated. Lara was successful in his appeal...

In May of 2012, Texas Corrections Sgt. Heath Lara was fired for “friending” an inmate on Facebook. Sgt. Lara appealed, claiming that he went to high school with the inmate, and had no idea the man was incarcerated. Lara was successful in his appeal and was reinstated in September 2012.

According to Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) Public Information Officer Jason Clark, the subsequent investigation found the inmate did not have access to the Internet while incarcerated. The inmate was found to have established his Facebook profile prior to his residency at the Huntsville, Texas prison, and that was when he was added to Sgt. Lara’s Facebook friends list. Further, there was no evidence which proved there was any relationship between the two men—no photographs, no comments, no “likes.”

While it is possible Sgt. Lara was unaware of the in-custody status of his former classmate (though he was an inmate at the very institution in which Lara worked). Still, the situation reinforces one of the most basic tenets of the law enforcement profession: every law enforcement officer must remain diligent in protecting his or her privacy.

PIO Clark acknowledges that TDCJ has not drafted a specific policy on officers’ use of social media outlets, even in the wake of the Lara case. At the time of this writing, unfortunately, it still doesn’t appear as if Sgt. Lara has employed many tactics by which to safeguard his privacy. A quick search on Google reveals that Sgt. Lara has a Google+ profile. Click on the link and you’ll see his picture, and that he works at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, went to Sam Houston State University, and lives in Huntsville, Texas. Conduct an equally quick search on Facebook and his profile pops right up. His publicly viewable profile picture matches the profile picture on his Google account, so we know we have the right Heath Lara. From the other pictures on his wall, we can also see he has a son who plays baseball, his son’s name, and the name of the baseball team.

Sgt. Lara is not violating any laws or department policy. It’s not ethically or morally wrong in any way for him, or any other LEO, to post photos of himself and his loved ones. However, when you consider the fact that he spends a good chunk of his time with convicted felons, and that eventually, some of those convicts will be released from custody, the lack of caution is alarming.

Here are 6 tips for safeguarding your privacy on Facebook:

Profile information

The amount of information you share with Facebook is mostly up to you. You don’t have to upload a picture of yourself, say what town you live in, where you went to school, or list your birth date. You don’t have to provide a phone number. If you want something other than the default blue silhouette for your profile picture, try something generic like a car (not yours), an animal, or the American flag. You can search the Web for stock photos and choose from tens of thousands of images. Facebook does require you to use a name, but we’ll get to that in tip number two.

So, you’ve filled in all the blanks when you set up your profile, huh? Not to worry. You can edit your privacy preferences at any time. Each section of your profile contains an “Edit” button, which then allows you to add or delete information, and choose who can see your profile.

Another thing—though it may initially cause some tension with your significant other, explain to her/him why it’s best not to indicate your relationship status.

Control who can find you

There is no way to stop someone from finding you by name on Facebook. If you have an unusual name, your best bet is to use a pseudonym. Choose something your friends will remember that doesn’t give away too much information. “Bears Fan”, “Cycle Mike” and “Scrabble Champ” are examples of names which say something about who you are without giving away your identity. Steer clear of names like “Officer Friendly”, “NYPD Blue”, or anything that could peg you as a cop.

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