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 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.

If you do use your own name, control who can find your profile (or Timeline, as Facebook now calls it). On your home page (wall) click on the arrow next to your name. Choose the “Privacy Settings” option from the drop-down menu. Next to the heading “How you connect,” click on “Edit Settings.”

You can choose who can look you up using the contact information you provided on your profile (which, because you’re smart, will not include your phone number), who can send you friend requests, and who can send you Facebook messages. For those three categories, the options are the same: Everyone, Friends, or Friends of Friends.

When someone does find you, and sends you a “Friend Request,” carefully consider your actual relationship with that person, before clicking “Confirm.” Have you had any face-to-face contact with that person within the last 6 months? The last year? What do you really know about that person? Will “friending” that person add quality to your life? Will not “friending” them have any negative effect on you at all?

If you’re torn about whether or not to add someone, run a quick Google name check. Some states have offender registries, which will tell you if they’re currently incarcerated. It takes less than a minute, yet could spare you untold grief.

Block apps

Your name, profile picture, email address and friends list can be exposed to the public when you play games, take quizzes, or click on website links from your Facebook profile. Your friends can unknowingly take your information with them into apps and other sites, just by going there themselves, unless you take measures to prevent it. From the “Privacy Settings” menu, select the “Ads, Apps and Websites” option. Click on “Edit Settings.” From there you can choose which apps, if any, you’ll allow to access your personal information. The safest option here is to choose “Turn off.” That will prevent you from using apps on Facebook, but it is the only way to really safeguard your profile from unauthorized access by sites which could undermine the other steps you’ve taken to control who views your information.

Control who can see your photos

Whenever you post a photo, you can choose whether to make it viewable by the public, your friends, or friends of friends. After you’ve uploaded your photo, click on the “Edit” option. There, you’ll see a drop-down menu which allows you to choose the audience for each photo.

Whichever option you choose, remember that it’s always best to play it safe. Don’t tag your children, especially if they’re wearing sports uniforms or anything that could indicate the school they attend. Likewise, be wary of what’s in the background of the photos—don’t upload a photo of your child/friends/loved ones in front of his/her school, your house, or even anywhere they regularly spend time. You do not want strangers to know how to find them.

Control who can see your old posts

Now that you’re more informed about the ways in which you can safeguard your privacy while using Facebook, you might want to change who can see your old posts. From the “Privacy Settings” screen, under the heading, “Limit the Audience for Past Posts”, click on “Manage Past Post Visibility.” That will change the settings on all of your old posts so that only your friends will be able to see them.

Delete your profile

If you still feel as if you’re too exposed on Facebook, you can delete your profile. Your friends will still be able to tag you in their photos, but your wall will not be visible any more. From your wall, click on the arrow next to the word “Home.” On the drop-down menu click on “Account Settings.” Toward the bottom of the page, find and click on the words, “Deactivate your Account.” You will be asked to give your reason for deactivating, and there are several options from which to choose. There is also the option, “Other,” which, if chosen, requires you to write an explanation. Click on whichever option you wish, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click on “Confirm.”

Here are a few other common-sense tips to keep you on the safe side, and out of IA:

Don’t post pictures of yourself in uniform.

Don’t post pictures of suspects.

Don’t comment on departmental matters.

Don’t post pictures of yourself drinking or behaving in a “manner unbecoming”.

It’s widely recognized that, in order to maintain a healthy emotional outlook while on the job, an LEO should have interests and friends outside of the profession. In a society in which 1 out of every 13 people in the world has a Facebook profile, you’d have to be living under a rock not to have one of your own. But excessive public exposure and over-sharing personal information, which has increasingly become the norm, can be most detrimental to the lives and careers of LEOs. “Social media sites can be valuable tools,” says Clark, “but they also have the potential to be problematic—not only for the institution, but for the officer as an individual.”

The Internet is still young, and many departments across the nation have not yet drafted policy, or implemented training, with regard to social media usage by their officers. Until the issue is widely addressed by department policy makers, it is up to officers to make wise decisions about what to share with the public.


Melina Moraga is a freelance writer whose law enforcement experience includes serving as a correctional officer, a 911 dispatcher, and a campus police security supervisor. She can be contacted at