Why correctional facilities need a social media policy

Having a clearly defined policy in place may save correctional officer careers


You can tell a lot about a person from their postings on social media. You can tell their likes, dislikes, who their friends are, and, in this day and age, their political views. We love talking about ourselves but sharing information can have a price.

You represent your agency every time you don your uniform, and your social media presence does the same thing. If a citizen sees a derogatory image on a CO’s Facebook page, he or she wonders, “Is the whole agency like that?” COs who think there is privacy when posting content online are sadly mistaken.

As our firearms instructors like to remind us, once the bullet leaves the barrel of our weapon, we cannot bring it back. It is the same for social media. When a comment is posted, the person posting it cannot control the effects and fallout it may generate.

How can correctional leaders best educate staff about the possible follies of posting on social media? (Photo/Pixabay)
How can correctional leaders best educate staff about the possible follies of posting on social media? (Photo/Pixabay)

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples of COs and public safety personnel committing social media-related career suicide:

How can correctional leaders best educate staff about the possible follies of posting on social media? Here are some key considerations:

1. Share social media fails

There are plenty of examples of public safety employees who have lost their jobs based on social media posts. Sharing this information is a guaranteed way of getting the attention of your staff.

2. Consider the First Amendment

While a public employee such as a correctional officer can exercise his or her First Amendment right to free speech, there is no requirement under our Constitution that employers, organizations, schools or other people have to continue their associations with you, which includes employment. [1]

The First Amendment limits government at any level restricting free speech, but it does not limit private employers. Public employers can set rules for staff members, but they may make the mistake of having too broad a policy or not saying specifically how violations concerning free speech (such as postings on a Facebook page) would undermine the efficiency of the law enforcement agency.

This does not give a CO a blank check to say what they want whenever they want. The ‘bottom line’ is that any form of speech, including postings on social media, that can be shown to disrupt an agency’s efficiency can subject the CO or staff member to department discipline, which includes suspension, demotion or termination. [1]

3. Develop clear policies

Corrections agencies are developing good policies and procedures for employees and social media. At the Connecticut Department of Corrections, all aspects of social media use are clearly defined. Prohibitions on staff using social media on duty and off duty are clear:

“All employees should exercise caution when commenting and/or communicating on social media and network sites and should consider whether personal thoughts they publish may be misunderstood as expressing official position(s) of the agency.”

The policy lists several types of confidential information, explicit sexual references regarding employees, inmates, vendor volunteers, contractors and staff supplying services. Also prohibited is internal information about the agency, its operations and physical layout, as well as:

“Information or photographs that indicate an association or membership with security risk groups, criminal enterprises, hate groups, watch groups, or groups of high interest to law enforcement”. [2]

Another effective, well-written policy can be found at the Sumter County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office. Blog, page, post and profile are all clearly defined. Guidelines for on-duty and off-duty use are also clear:

“When using social media, employees should be mindful that their speech becomes part of the worldwide electronic domain. Therefore, adherence to the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office code of conduct is required in the personal use of social media.” [3]

If correctional supervisors put forth clear guidelines and training and periodically check employees’ social media pages, they maybe able to save COs from social media-related career suicide.

 I would like to thank both Hipolito Rodriguez of the State of Connecticut Department of Corrections and Angelique Lochrie, Jail and Court Services Administrator, Sumter County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office for their assistance with this article.

References

1. Murgado A. How to Understand First Amendment Rights for Public Employees. Police Magazine, December 4, 2017.

2. State of Connecticut Department of Corrections, Administrative Directive 2.26, Social Media. May 1, 2015.

3. Sumter County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office Operations Directive 3398.00, Social Media/Employee Activity Online. June 27, 2016.

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