Thinking 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