Saturday 24 February 2018

The Thin Blue (Digital) Line

This post was originally published on

With the release of its social media policy, the New York City Police Department has made its attempt to grapple with how its officers comport themselves in a digital world. Like the impetus for many such policies, this policy apparently owes to the past online behavior of both New York City’s police and fire departments. The headline in New York Magazine puts it bluntly: “NYPD Orders Cops Not to Be Racist on Social Media.” Newsday asks “What Took Them So Long?”

Many people ask “Why have a social media policy in the first place?” pointing to the fact that employees are already supplied with a company handbook on their first day. Indeed, look at the items referenced in the NYPD policy (e.g., that it’s a bad idea to publish unprofessional content, leak photos of a crime scene, speak on behalf of the department, be friends with lawyers/witnesses/suspects, etc.). It’s hard to imagine that those rules aren’t already codified somewhere. In fact, most may think that it’s an inch-high curb to translate the inadvisability of those activities to the digital world.

The short answer to such critics is that the consequences of breaking some of these rules come a lot faster, hit a lot harder, and last a lot longer online. Given that, though, this NYPD case is very different from the typical case at the intersection of employee behavior and online communities—and the difference is a very important one. In this particular instance, these are public employees or, to put it more finely, people technically employed by… “us.” These are people taxpayers pay to keep them safe and maintain order. In other words, everybody has an interest in how this plays out, especially since it’s possible that many other public safety departments are even now relying on these recent NYC developments to help guide their own decisions.

Though it’s easy to understand and support the need for online behavior policies, the NYPD’s policy risks criticism for painting with too broad a brush. For example, a prohibition against posting photos of oneself while in uniform not only prevents officers from displaying pride in their chosen calling as NYPD officers, but may run afoul of free speech and labor laws should the department go on strike and take to the Internet.

A balance must be achieved here. One could argue that there is a very strong incentive to know as much as possible about those paid to protect us. So, we should want members of law enforcement to be online as much as is practical, so long as it doesn’t interfere with their duties or compromise loved ones. A policy, if too-broadly drawn, may have a chilling effect at precisely the time when citizens desire more transparency from their government.

On the other hand, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly says “One of the issues in a complex business like this is that people say they’re part of an organization, this organization, and make a statement that the public can interpret as policy. You can’t run an organization like that.”

In a pervasively digital world, both law enforcement and civilians will continue to grapple with the following question: “Exactly how much is either group really entitled to know about the other?”

Image credit: damselfly58

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