Just how high does the standard need to be?

stupidThinking about the Bozeman officer who resigned over his Facebook status updates made me think: What, exactly, do we civilians expect from our police officers?

Because I’ve heard comments along the same lines from dozens of other cops. Civilians, too. Take this one from one of my own Facebook friends:

“….I suffer fools not at all. Stupidity makes me so sad. Moreover, I simply cannot believe the number of people moving through life who are totally clueless.”

Or the comments on this news article.

I see this kind of thing every time the news posts something about people who shouldn’t be allowed to drive, breed, or leave the house. In fact, I’d wager, it’s a rare person who doesn’t at least think this way (or cross the line into what many would consider racist, classist, or other offensive territory).

So why do we expect different from cops?

It’s worth thinking about if you are contemplating officer participation in social media. Valeria Maltoni writes, “Many companies have written solid policies and guides to social media participation… [but as] more employees participate, there will be a need for more conversations about what staying in character means.”

Some agencies have forbidden officers from identifying themselves as police officers altogether. Not only does this protect the agency, it also protects the officer who may end up doing online undercover work.

And that’s a start, but I can’t help thinking it’s not fair to the good, responsible officers, for whom police work is an integral part of who they are. Not to mention, at least in a place like Facebook, there will always be some “friends” who know what s/he does for a living.

So why isn’t it OK for police to be as honest as the rest of us in their opinions of humanity? Quick and easy answer, straight from the Bozeman lawsuit itself: because of their authority. Anyone who carries around weapons in the course of their daily work automatically has “one up” on us. If they view us as stupid, what’s to stop them from using those weapons to “put us in our place”?

The same thing, in most cases, that stops us from using whatever weapons are at hand—kitchen knives, baseball bats, words—to put others in place whom we feel are being “stupid.” Conscience, experience. In fact, cops are even less likely to use weapons than we are, when they’re well trained. It’s when emotion and stress overwhelm training that they start to act more like—well, us, at our worst.

Yet we continue to demand better, even after things like the Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments prove that very few humans—fewer than we’d like to think—are capable of taking the moral high ground, that not only are some of us not better than others; frequently, we’re worse than our beliefs about ourselves.

Ego, not authority

So I think the main concern with police being allowed to voice their personal opinions is less about their authority and more about our ego. As humans, we go along in life mainly wanting to be liked. Deep down, we want to think we’re doing the right thing, that we’re smart for making the choices we made, and that we’ll be forgiven for making the wrong choices.

So when someone openly calls us stupid? What nerve. And how much worse when it’s someone we want to respect. Most of us want respect back from those we look up to. Knowing we don’t have it threatens our sense of who we are.

Pop psychology, right? But zoom back. I’m not just talking about a one-to-one reaction of citizen to police officer. It works the other way, too—when police departments join social networking sites, hoping to establish relationships with their publics.

Just as individuals tend to prefer to remain ignorant about what others really think of us, organizations find themselves rudely awakened by customers tweeting or blogging about a bad customer-service experience.

True—police departments are used to this, have been for decades. But because social media demands we listen before engaging, the new territory for police is 1) opening themselves to more criticism than usual and 2) facing the need to do something about it.

And really, that’s what causes us as individuals the ego-discomfort with criticism, too. We all want to think we’re getting it right. Seeing that we might not be scares us—because it means we will need to change our ways. Who wants to do that? When you’ve been doing something the same way for years, where would you even start to change?

To protect ourselves, we lash out. It can’t be us, we think; it must be the person doing the judging. There’s no way I could have been speeding; I’m a careful driver. That cop didn’t calibrate his radar this morning.

Likewise, regardless of how accustomed police are to criticism, we hear: These people have no idea what goes into what we do. We work hard trying to keep them safe. Can’t please everyone.

We are them, they are us

Folks, these are the reasons WHY we are on social media. Those of us who have jumped aboard have experienced first-hand how it can bridge gaps. Most of us understand that social media is about bringing together people with widely divergent experiences, communicating differences with an eye toward fixing the problems they pose.

Yes, reducing human interaction to words on a screen enables criminals to hide more easily, but the criminal mind will always take advantage of well-purposed tools. For the rest of us, social media equalizes. Reducing interaction to words on a screen also reduces the likelihood of our making unfair assumptions about each other—and enables us to correct those assumptions made more easily.

So while guidelines should indeed determine whether and how much officers participate in social media, self-identifying as officers, administrators should bear in mind that if you worry too much about controlling the message, you risk turning the public away altogether.

Set guidelines. Reprimand officers who blog or tweet or whatever outside them. Apologize to the public for the problem. Remind them that we’re all just learning this space and how to coexist in it. Promise that you’ll do better next time—and, because the medium is the equalizer, ask the same of them. Agree to forgive each other when you fall short of that, as we all do.

Isn’t that what we all want?

Image: Kevin Marks via Flickr

12 thoughts on “Just how high does the standard need to be?

  1. H. Carvey

    IMHO, it’s completely about their authority.

    Police officers have the power to arrest someone. As a citizen, I cannot stop someone on the street, place them in handcuffs, and hold them overnight against their will, regardless of what they do. Police officers have the authority to stop and arrest people.

    Several books in the New Testament state that “teachers” (analogous to those in authority) should be held to a higher standard, and as a former Marine officer, I believe this wholeheartedly. Yes, we all make mistakes, but those in authority need to realize that their role places them in a position of visibility and scrutiny. On a recent trip, I read Tony Dungy’s “Quiet Strength” and in that book it was clear that he has been saying this for years to professional athletes…while not the same thing as the position of authority “enjoyed by” LE, the visibility and scrutiny is very similar, and need for restraint and professionalism is the same.

    IMHO, it’s possible to humanize LE while at the same time maintain an air of professionalism. I understand the need to vent, but I also get concern about how I’d be treated if stopped by a member of LE.
    .-= H. Carvey´s last blog ..Mo’ Stuff =-.

  2. Christa Miller Post author

    Then perhaps as a community we should do more of our part and also hold ourselves to a higher standard. If you are surrounded by people, online or off, who constantly voice their own frustrations about “stupidity” they see, you become desensitized to seeing it. And, because you’re part of the community, you unconsciously want to fit in, and you also think since everyone is already talking that way, they won’t mind if you do it too. Because they “know” you and they “know” you are just venting.

    True — too many officers do not think in terms of “friends of friends” and others who can see their profiles without knowing them. And they should. I’ve found the higher profile I become in this community, the more I think twice before posting frustrations. At the same time, though, I try to surround myself with other professionals who I know will lift me up and provide a good example on bad days.

    Will everyone think that way? No. So perhaps, because the personal-professional line has become so very blurred, social media policies/guidelines should include not only standards of professional conduct — but also “fuzzier” concepts that speak to individuals as people as well as employees.

  3. J. Garcia

    I agree with H. Carvey, one who is in a position of authority needs to hold themselves to a higher standard. There was an article in the NY Times (Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/11/nyregion/11about.html?_r=2), about a NYPD officer that made posts that he probably thought were throw-away comments, but got a case of his dismissed because it put a show of doubt in a jury’ eyes.

    As one who is in a position of authority myself and who fully uses social media, I am always careful as to what I post. I never want anything that I post to ever be misconstrued. My “friends” and I may know that I am kidding around, but a jury or the public might not. I see young Police Officers who use MySpace & Facebook that post photos of themselves with a beer or pointing a gun at the camera. I always shake my head at these actions. What type of image does that pose to the public? I am sure that it doesn’t help to ensure their faith in who is protecting them.

    There is a way to be human and strip some professionalism away, but you just have to be intelligent about it. If I need to vent, I do so with my wife or fellow officers and never in the public’s eyes.

  4. Christa Miller Post author

    OK. My point wasn’t a blanket “cops should be allowed to say whatever they want” because obviously that’s not a good idea! What I was getting at was 1) The public bears some responsibility too. Don’t say police should be on social media and then expect them to get it right immediately. As with any other tool — gun, Taser, OC spray, handcuffs, baton — it takes training and practice to use.

    Thus 2) agencies shouldn’t just fire or demand resignation or refuse to hire cops who made mistakes. They need to set policy, and not just “official” policy explaining consequences for violation, but also guidelines that can be used as a foundation for both training and practice.

    There will always be jerks who misuse social media, just as there are jerks who misuse guns and Tasers and batons, and they should be dealt with accordingly for true abuses of their power. But to lump honest mistakes in with them is not fair to anyone. Instead they can be used to teach and to learn — by everyone.

  5. J. Garcia

    The public should bear no responsibility IMHO. They should expect their Police to be on a higher platform then themselves. Police should be involved with social media in order to be on the cutting edge and relevant. Any good cop knows how to employ tools to get his or her job done effectively whether it be mace, nightstick, gun, the gift of gab or in this case modern technology.

    As far as training in social media, it should just be common sense. Since most Police Departments nowadays hire college level applicants and shun high school graduates (for whatever reason is beyond me), you would hope that those officers would have enough sense on how to carry themselves.

  6. Christa Miller Post author

    Don’t get me started on how college doesn’t prepare job candidates for critical thinking skills any better than high school does! That is a rant for a whole ‘nother blog! ;)

    Yes, the public should indeed expect their police to be on a higher platform — but they should also support them in being there. Cops get frustrated when people don’t protect themselves from crime in the easiest of ways — when they leave their garage doors open and their vehicles unlocked, for example. If the public took more responsibility for their offline behavior, 1) you’d have less crime and 2) cops wouldn’t be so inclined to call them “stupid” (or think of them that way).

    Because here’s the other thing — even if a cop isn’t calling people stupid online — good chance he’s thinking of them as stupid, right? So if you think of other people as stupid, even if you don’t voice it, doesn’t that too diminish your ability to treat them with respect?

    So then we’re demonizing social media for a problem that isn’t social media’s. As with so much else, social media highlights the problem, but it’s not the root cause. In fact, you can’t have true community without everyone being responsible for their part. That’s been a fundamental part of community policing for the last 20 years, it’s a fundamental part of the Cease Fire program.

    And it’s a fundamental part of the “Internet community” of social media. The public is showing that it WANTS to be more a part of crime prevention through crowdsourcing and retweeting and whatnot. So if they’re prepared to take on that kind of responsibility (and yes I realize not all do) then those who are prepared shouldn’t stand there and point the finger at cops who haven’t caught on as quickly — they should be helping to guide them in getting to know and use the tools appropriately, and they should stand as an example to those who would prefer to keep the status quo of “blame the cop” rather than helping solve problems.

    Otherwise you don’t have community — you have the same old, “us and them.” It would be a real shame if we did not allow social media to bring us together as so many of us believe it can.

  7. H. Carvey

    > OK. My point wasn’t a blanket “cops should be allowed to say whatever they want”
    > because obviously that’s not a good idea!

    I ran into this in the military…I had a young Corporal who felt that the Marine Corps was impeding his right to free speech when he tried to wear a black t-shirt with a bright green pot leaf and the word “BLUNT” on it to a volunteer activity at a local elementary school.

    > What I was getting at was 1) The public bears some responsibility too. Don’t say police
    > should be on social media and then expect them to get it right immediately. As with any
    > other tool — gun, Taser, OC spray, handcuffs, baton — it takes training and practice to
    > use.

    I think we need to look at the context…if the public wants the police on social media, in what capacity? Should individual officers post their thoughts and feelings, or is the request more for information about police matters, and statements made via a PIO?

    > Thus 2) agencies shouldn’t just fire or demand resignation or refuse to hire cops who
    > made mistakes. They need to set policy, and not just “official” policy explaining
    > consequences for violation, but also guidelines that can be used as a foundation for
    > both training and practice.

    Agreed. But at the same time, we need to keep in mind that as you’ve said, this is all new to law enforcement. IMHO, law enforcement is underpaid as it is (include teachers in that mix as well), staffs are too small, and training is simply not available.

    > There will always be jerks who misuse social media, just as there are jerks who misuse
    > guns and Tasers and batons, and they should be dealt with accordingly for true abuses
    > of their power. But to lump honest mistakes in with them is not fair to anyone. Instead
    > they can be used to teach and to learn — by everyone.

    I agree, but to be honest, someone who identifies themselves in their personal FB site or Twitter profile as an active law enforcement officer, and then starts referring to members of the public as “stupid”, is just…well…stupid.
    .-= H. Carvey´s last blog ..Mo’ Stuff =-.

  8. Christa Miller Post author

    Your point about the young corporal is a new dimension of the discussion. I have talked with folks who believe that allowing social media is part and parcel of being a competitive workplace in this age — that because new recruits are so “used to” using Facebook etc. that to deny them access is to send them to the next agency that does allow access, or to a private company.

    At that point it becomes about teaching the value of making small individual sacrifices for the greater good, a value that seems to have become more diluted over the years. Again, this goes back to the concept of community and individual responsibility for it.

    As for what the public wants of its police — that is an excellent question. I think a lot of people aren’t really sure what they want. Many don’t want “Big Brother,” and that’s valid. Most of us who provide consulting on social media as part of PR believe that it is, indeed, a community, and should be treated as such. But Joe or Jane Citizen on Facebook?

    Again that points up the value of listening. I think it ultimately depends on the individual agency and the community it serves. If people in Anytown like being able to talk to their cops as human beings, then the department can feel free to respond accordingly. But if Anywhere citizens only want traditional one-way communication, policies on personal use should be stricter.

    That also brings up how fluid social media policies really are, how often they have to be reviewed and revised depending on community wants and needs. It’s not as cut and dried as a use-of-force policy. This mode of communication carries many more subtleties.

    And as for training… because you are right that resources are so limited, that’s why I argue that social media users and Kool-Aid drinkers should put themselves in a position to help police self-train, to help administrators know the difference between an honest mistake and true abuse, and how to set appropriate policies.

    Finally, I am married to a teacher, so I actually do see your and J. Garcia’s points. My husband has come home saying things like “Kids are stupid… they can’t even be bothered bringing pencils to class.” (This is in high school.) As a parent, if I saw him say that on Facebook? Yeah, I’d be concerned. And then I’d wonder what the deal is with high school kids, so close to voting and enlistment age, not bringing pencils to class. Again — responsibility!

  9. J. Garcia

    “I agree, but to be honest, someone who identifies themselves in their personal FB site or Twitter profile as an active law enforcement officer, and then starts referring to members of the public as “stupid”, is just…well…stupid.”

    Could not have said that better myself.

    There are those of us that use Twitter, Facebook or whatever for non-undercover operations. I use Twitter to be part of the Forensics & InfoSec community. My account is not supported by my department. That said, I believe that an Officer should take as much care with an official, as well as a private, social media account

  10. Christa Miller Post author

    Thanks Danny, I hope so too. I freely admit I overthink things, but I also think sometimes issues lurk under the surface that folks may not want or be able to articulate. Even if that isn’t the case here, just to get people thinking about it is enough. Thanks H and J for making me think as well!

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