EDITORIAL | Policing officers’ social media

In this age of social media, many still have yet to learn to think twice about what they post online for fear of employers reading it. Especially inept are a few police officers, whose “employers” are the taxpaying public.

Chief Kathleen O’Toole says she’s been working on a new social media policy for the Seattle Police Department (SPD) since last August, well before taking disciplinary actions in early February against two SPD officers who wrote inflammatory comments on their personal social media accounts.

Though the first officer is under investigation for incidents dating as far back as 2011, her Facebook comments only came to light more recently. She had made racially charged comments following last summer’s shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

The second SPD officer’s Twitter feed included comments equating social justice with reverse racism and disparaging remarks about specific minority groups.

These two officers passed muster to join SPD’s ranks more than a decade ago, but social media wasn’t the phenomenon then as it is now. Still, social media isn’t such a new entity that they wouldn’t know the implications of their public postings. The fact that they made these comments years after SPD was tasked with reforming itself because of possible racially biased policing and excessive force is all the more exasperating.

As with any “business,” the officers represent their employers — both the city government that hired them and the public that pays them. If they disagree so strongly with their job’s mission that it compromises how they should carry out their duties, then they need look elsewhere for work, as Seattle Police Officers’ Guild president Ron Smith suggested in an email to the union’s members.

The police badge bears the innate responsibility of protecting the public and the public’s trust at all times. Yet, SPD’s new social media policy — effective Sunday, March 1 — needs to clearly state that officers cannot “make, share or comment in support of” actions that are immoral, if not illegal, for anyone else to do online and elsewhere: harassment, bullying, racial or sexual discrimination and inciting “unlawful or reckless” behavior against public safety. The policy is written as if officers don’t already know what would inherently undermine that public trust and the law.

All of our police officers need to not only be savvy in their dealings with the public, they should be equally astute with their social media presence, too, because now, their employers are scrutinizing them more than ever.