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Calif. Councilman Complains About Cops' Facebook Posts

Highlighting a growing and sometimes controversial nexus between police and social media, San Jose City Councilman Pete Constant has made a complaint to city officials that two San Jose command police officers flamed him on Facebook.

Constant, a former San Jose police officer, would not identify the officers. Nor would the department.

But sources told this newspaper that the two officers are Lt. Rob Millard, who works in patrol, and Lt. Rick Weger, head of the department's Internal Affairs unit.

The councilman said the two objectionable posts were made in late April.

Weger's post referred to the published account of a meeting in which Constant summoned a police officer to make sure a disruptive speaker left the podium: "Who is going to come running when he fires 200 cops? Maybe Constant would need a SJPD body guard if he would just tell the truth."

Millard's Facebook post said of Constant's behavior: "Once a coward and a thief, always a coward and a thief."

Constant showed the posts to City Manager Debra Figone and Police Chief Chris Moore. They expressed "concern," Constant said. But he said he is not aware if anything was done about the complaint.

"Your job as a command officer to is to build morale, not to tear down morale," Constant said, referring to the two officers. Both officers declined to comment.

Is Constant's complaint an official's attempt to censor free speech, or is he addressing unprofessional and inappropriate examples of cyberbullying by city employees?

Nationally, officers have been disciplined and lost their jobs over their posts on social networking sites. Some are asking whether cops should be held to a higher social media standard.

The San Jose Police Department has a general policy that says officers may post on Facebook and other social networking sites but warns they should not use it in a way that would constitute "conduct unbecoming of an officer."

One of the examples the policy warns against is posting anything that would harm the reputation of the department, the city or its employees.

Legal experts say it's permissible to limit some online free speech rights of public employees, but others warn the limitations can easily go too far,

"There is a legitimate interest in maintaining order and not undermining the department," said ACLU staff lawyer Linda Lye. "But maintaining an effective administration is not to be used as a pretext to censor unpopular speech in political issues, such as questioning the competence of elected officials."

But, she added, "the devil is in the details."

Social media experts in law enforcement tend to preach a basic rule: Don't post anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the local newspaper.

Moore, who declined to answer any questions about the specific case or even confirm there was one, said that the department must balance officer rights against the integrity of the department and public safety.

Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell -- who also would not comment on or confirm Constant's complaint -- said she believes Internal Affairs officers should be banned from "friending" fellow officers on Facebook and other social media sites. Or, the former judge said, they should have to disclose if they are investigating a cyberfriend and be taken off the case.

Cordell said "friends," no matter how distant, ought not be investigating "friends."

"Officers in Internal Affairs are the guardians of the integrity of the police department," she said. "For the public to have trust in the process, the officers in Internal Affairs must be beyond reproach."

Cordell, who does not have her own Facebook site, said she enacted a similar policy for her own staff.

But Moore said the department already has conflict of interest policies in place. And the police officers union wants to block the former judge from interfering with any officers' pages on Facebook, MySpace or any other website. They said such a ban would impinge on officer rights and openly worried that Cordell has ultimate designs on removing from the department the task of policing their own.

"It's an insult to the professionalism of the investigators working that assignment," said Jim Unland. "Further, it is an exaggerated and bastardized interpretation of the word 'friend.' "

Kelli Evans, associate director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said Cordell's proposal is "completely reasonable."

"There is an apparent conflict of interest whether the 'friends' are real or only exist in the virtual world," Evans said. "Their job is to conduct full, fair and unbiased investigations. That function is so critical that they have to be above the fray. And this calls in to question their ability to be unbiased."

Pierce Murphy, a police oversight expert who oversees the Boise, Idaho, police department, said that the proposal brings up a larger issue.

"How do internal investigators deal with the inherent conflict of having to investigate people who they have worked with, side by side, for years or with whom they could even be personal friends?"

Contact Sean Webby at 408-920-5003.

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