Online Exclusive

Beware the Digital Fingerprints You Leave Behind, Pt. 2

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).

And, surprisingly, some officers are still unaware of the reach and permanence of the internet.  That sarcastic and oh-so-open-to-interpretation comment on your buddies facebook page can grow legs and wander far afield of where you intended, away from the relative safety of a (really only somewhat) insular and private community and into the public realm.  Do you know and trust all of your old college roommate’s facebook friends?  And how about that pithy, hilarious tweet about “those people” you deal with day in and day out?  What part of the viral potential of Twitter did you not understand?

Solution:  Educate yourself.  If you participate in social media or online discussion boards, make yourself aware of their reach and how they can undermine your credibility in a keystroke.  Know your department’s policy regarding such matters or, if there is none or it is overly vague, seek – or demand – clarification. 

And know we’re not saying you need to be humorless, or should never express a controversial opinion.  We are saying, “Be careful!”  Think about your words and how they’ll be interpreted.  Understand what they will reflect about you in particular and law enforcement in general, and ask yourself if hitting send is really a good idea, or if you should perhaps do a little editing first.  

Overconfidence in or lack of cautiousness about, your own abilities online

Police officers tend to be extremely confident people.  That’s a good thing.  It is important cops project decisiveness and competence, and timidity is a fatal flaw (sometimes literally).  But what is desirable and works well on the job can, if not tempered by cautious humility, get you in over your head as quick as you can click a mouse.  Actually, most experienced cops know this is also true on the street, usually from some hard lessons early in their careers.  The ones who take those lessons to heart tend to have long, prosperous careers. 

Complacency is possibly the greatest single threat to your physical, emotional, and professional safety.  Consider this:  How many times have you answered a burglar alarm and found an open door to an unoccupied building?  Gone to, handled, and cleared a domestic dispute with nothing out of the ordinary happening?  Walked up on suspicious vehicle in the middle of the night to find nothing amiss?  These things happen all the time, but the smart cop knows someday there will actually be a burglar inside.  Someday that domestic is going to go horribly sideways.  Someday that car will be occupied by someone violently opposed to being hassled by the cops.  And when that someday comes, complacency can kill.

The same is true in the digital world; if you are prone to pushing the envelope of good taste and judgment, you can probably get away with a lot of things for a long time.  But someday someone is going to raise a concern, bring a beef, or call you out on the carpet for something you’ve said or done.  Getting away with questionable judgment calls might work for awhile but eventually they catch up with us and, as on the street, complacency can have serious consequences.

Solution:  Set as high a standard for yourself online as you do in the “real” world.  Never be complacent about how you’ll appear in your words, actions, and searches on the web.  If you think anything you do is truly private, think again; the reach and speed of technology is mindboggling and so is the ability of savvy people to unearth things you may never want exposed to scrutiny. 

Lacking a filter (or is it an overabundance of arrogance)

We’ve all known people who pride themselves for their “brutal honesty.”  In the interest of “telling it like it is” or “keeping it real” they hold nothing back, wielding their words as machetes and then patting themselves on the back for their candor. 

Not that there is never a time and place for such bluntness but I often wonder if, deep down, they are really more interested in being honest or brutal.  Actually, I know the answer to that.  Often, these are the folks who like conflict.  They spoil for the fight. And when people simply up and leave – like family and (former) friends – they are expert at deflecting blame onto the “oversensitive types” who can’t handle the truth.  They lack verbal filters. 

The online universe breeds this very phenomenon in those who are otherwise kind and diplomatic in face-to-face settings.  Perhaps it’s the relative anonymity of the internet, or the nature of the medium encourages it, or they feel safe to cast off the social constructs that stifle their true feelings but, whatever the reason, civility is in diminishing supply.  If you are one of those “tell it like it is” types who take a scorched earth approach to expressing your opinion, that is your prerogative.  Just be aware that, if you are known or advertise yourself as law enforcement, you will come to represent the whole of the occupation to those subject to your “brutal honesty.”  And if you reveal where you work, you will be representing your coworkers and agency; at that point your off-duty words become very much their business, like it or not.

Solution:  Practice tact.  Care for your reputation.  Keep the honest but drop the brutality. 

Perhaps the most important thing to remember, and what all of the possible pitfalls described above lead back to, is to avoid shortsightedness.  Online media, for all its wonder and exciting potential, 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 don’t.

Stay safe, online and off!