Beware the Digital Fingerprints You Leave Behind, Pt. 2

Online media breeds a peculiar form of digital attention deficit disorder in each of us – we click, type, post, and move on with little reflection on the possible long-term consequences of what we just did. And we mostly get away with it. Until we...


Authors note:  This is the second of a 2-part series on the “digital fingerprints” we leave behind in the wake of our online presence, and how our words and actions on the internet can hurt us and the profession of law enforcement.  If you haven’t already, please read our first article, “Beware the Digital Fingerprints You Leave Behind!”

Why are so many cops – people carefully screened and chosen for their sober judgment and entrusted with great power and responsibility – still getting in trouble for poor decisions in the online world?  How do they, when there are so many examples of fellow officers disciplined for imprudent words and actions sent, shared, and permanently stored on the net, continue repeating the same mistakes and even coming up with ever newer and creative ways to self-destruct?  With so much at stake, what resides in a person to risk career and reputation over a facebook post, comment, shared photo, text message, or tweet that takes mere seconds to compose yet clings to the web for an eternity?

It is obvious to anyone who takes part in social media, or takes in news and opinion from the online world, that such impulsiveness is not unique to law enforcement.  The old term “diarrhea of the mouth” comes to mind but applied in a very different setting – that is, the tendency in certain circumstances to let down defenses and shut off normal verbal filters and blather on, only to realize the consequences later.  We’ve all done it.  Only now, when conversations are as likely to be over a laptop as over the water fountain or beers, the diarrhea leaves permanent stains.

It should also be obvious that such indiscretion is not unique to cops; failure to engage the brain before speaking (or, alarmingly, the horrific realization that the writer of words, and poster of “deep” thoughts, has full engagement of the brain but with no effect on objective reason) is on display all over the net.  Most professions, however, are not hurt by the racist or homophobic rant of an isolated member.  The private sector will rarely face the scrutiny and judgment of the public as do those of us who work for them.  Especially those of us who work for them and can arrest them, should the need arise.  We are held to a higher standard, and we should be.

So, again, why is it we keep getting in trouble when so much precedent exists to show us what not to do?  Consider the following possible explanations - and solutions to counter them – and see if any strike a chord with you:

Ignorance of, or misinformation about, the rules and impact of online behavior

Let’s start with where too many automatically go when they find themselves restricted by policy, or in trouble for something they’ve posted, and are filled with indignation that they could somehow be held accountable for expressing themselves:  The First Amendment.

We’re neither lawyers nor constitutional scholars so we aren’t going to get into the legal fine print about such issues; there are lawyers and scholars interpreting disputes and court decisions, and producing excellent articles explaining the extent of, and limits on, employee rights in a digital world as they relate to employment.  We highly recommend you take time to do some research and educate yourself on this still-evolving area.  It is very interesting.  Just keep in mind what the First Amendment protects, what it does not, and where the limits lie with regard to your employment and how your words and actions represent your agency and the profession.

Beyond the First Amendment issues there often lay more specific and customized policies and guidelines governing online activity.  In short, you may be fully within your constitutional rights as a citizen in what you say (and therefore beyond government prosecution or persecution) but still fall outside specifically crafted employment policy designed to ensure the reputation and smooth operation of your agency, even if you happen to be employed by the government (and fully subject to discipline).  Unfortunately, many police departments have yet to craft specific policy addressing online behavior or, if they have, it is either too vague (setting employees up for failure) or too restrictive (prompting anger and even rebellion).

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