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...


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. 

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