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Law Enforcement Social Media Policy

by | Aug 3, 2023 | Social Media

Law Enforcement Social Media Policy

Aug 3, 2023 | Social Media

We’re frequently asked if we have any examples of policies for law enforcement social media teams. Law enforcement policy on social media is a huge topic and several departments want to know how to create one and what to put in it.

Because of this, we’ve written this article to help departments in crafting their own policies on this topic. Feel free to take what you need and leave what you don’t! Here’s what we believe every policy should have…

1. Purpose

You should open up your policy with the reason it has been created or its purpose.

The use of social media by law enforcement to connect with their communities, solve crimes, and promote the good image and services provided to the public is a standard today. It is essential that departments have policies in place not only guiding their employee’s use of social media on behalf of the department but policies for how their teams should operate, as well as the expectations set forth by administrators and elected officials.

The essential purpose of a law enforcement social media policy should be:

  • Ensure the department’s reputation is safeguarded and the department’s image is continually portrayed in a positive light.
  • Provide standards for the selection and supervision of members of the team.
  • Provide uniformity and consistency conventions.
  • Provide information or guidelines for using certain platforms, equipment, content curation and creation, and general operations.
  • Guidelines for handling online conflicts or hostilities, crisis communications, online or reported crimes, and tips.
  • Encourage non-team members to support the mission of both the department and the social media team or unit.
  • Provide information for adhering to legal guidelines, mandates, laws, and codes.

By creating a policy that addresses these topics, departments can protect themselves against potential legal actions, provide guidance to team members on acting with members of the online community, and create a positive presence while ensuring their social media team members remain professional at all times.

So who should write the policy, and who should have some say in how it is crafted and what goes into it? Ideally, the person taking the lead on creating and writing the policy should have not just an understanding of social media, but actual experience using it on both a personal, and professional level. It could be a sergeant or lieutenant who actually posts on the department’s social media accounts already.

As for who should have a say; anyone who will be posting and managing social media, and those who will be directly affected by anything posted, such as commanders and chiefs. Everyone should sit at the table at some point and explain any concerns, issues, or desires they may have. It’s not uncommon for lower-ranking members of the team to be more knowledgeable on practices and laws surrounding social media, records retention, and public affairs, than higher ranking officers. The top should at least listen to the bottom. After all, the top often times sends the bottom to conferences and training so they can master their skill. They need to at least listen to them when they offer input. It’s a classic case of “trust, but verify.”

The policy should at least be reviewed annually, as the world of technology and social media changes rapidly. Additionally, new laws, court cases, and high-profile incidents in the news may dictate a department needs to update its policy immediately.

A police social media policy is not only important for the organization internally, but externally as well. Community members, business owners, and activists actively search terms such as “social media policy for law enforcement,” or “police officer social media policy.” They want to know what the department is telling their staff they can and can’t do, and they may be looking for “loopholes,” or anything which will fit a potentially bad narrative. By having a policy, you can quickly avert any potential issues.

According to Mary Izadi, Constitutional Policing Advisor at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in California, “An agency’s social media policy is the benchmark that will empower all employees, not just members of a police department’s social media team, with the information they need to create and maintain content that is both lawful and appropriate on social media.”



2. Team Operations

Your policy should cover the formation of your team, starting with the selection of team personnel.

Law enforcement social media team members are the “poster employees” of the department, per se. They are brand ambassadors who are representatives of your department. They are the men and women who look, act, and speak the best in your department, and their attitudes show it as well. Your policy should explain these requirements or expectations. 

The policy should explain the importance that team members are comfortable with speaking in public, providing highly-professional presentations, and are a solid representation of the public safety profession both in person and online.

Included in this section of the policy should be the type of experience you are looking for, as well as your expectations of their personal social media usage, including accounts and reputations.

Another key point in this part of the policy which is imperative to the success of any social media program, is the individual team members “mastering” of social media. It should be outlined that team members are to have a working knowledge of each platform’s settings and navigational structure, common practices for the specific platform, as well as the terms of service, guidelines, and platform policies. It simply is not enough to be able to post good pictures with good copy. Social media team members really need to be masters of their craft.

Your policy could also include the separation or specialization of roles. You might have team members specifically trained and assigned to:

  • Handling crises, like suicidal thoughts and mentally ill individuals who comment or post on your department’s pages
  • Community engagement or customer service
  • Handling of negative publicity, hostile comments, or general PR management
  • Social engagement

The policy should define the time commitment for not only individual team members, but the frequency of posts and operational times for engaging with the community, responding to comments and messages, and posting new content.

3. Supervision

Your policy should outline how the team’s chain of command is structured. It might break traditional para-military protocol in the fact the social media team member might in fact report directly to the chief of police, bypassing sergeants or other ranks. 

Administration and supervisors must ensure that all members of the department understand the importance of using social media responsibly and are committed to adhering to the policies that have been put in place. To do so, they should regularly communicate the goals of the department’s social media use and emphasize how everyone’s participation is essential to its success.

This needs to be in the policy to not only protect the individual team member but to solidify any questions a supervisor may have as to how the team members operate and who they report to. 

Another addition to the policy should be the expectations the chief or department has for the supervisors in terms of supporting the department’s online goal and the social media team. We’ve seen plenty of departments where supervisors are force-fed to endorse the mission, but deep down inside they could care less about it. However, these same supervisors are the ones running up the chain when they have an issue about something being posted by a subordinate. You can avoid these internal conflicts by spelling them out in the policy of how it’s going to be.

A probation officer sits in a TOC social me

4. Employee Training and Commitment

If you don’t have another policy that covers employee training and commitment to the department’s mission on social media, this would be a good place to put it. However, some employees may not tend to look at this policy if they aren’t on the social media team. Additionally, if you’ve never considered having all employees receive some form of training, maybe it’s a good time to visit this topic.

This policy should outline the conduct expected of employees when they are using social media. If they are sworn personnel, they should be reminded that their conduct needs to adhere to the law enforcement code of ethics. 

Using the department’s logo, badge, patch or other insignias should be discussed in this section. The business and corporate world encourage the use of their logos, mentioning the company’s name, and usage of specific hashtags which identify the person as a member of the company. They want to promote the organization and showcase the productivity and happiness of their employees.

The last point well make in this section is there needs to be some notation as to the purpose of the department’s use of social media, and how it is helpful for employees to be supportive of this mission. It should be mentioned that making negative comments against the department, fellow employees, and members of the public, or ridiculing those accused of crimes could lead to disciplinary action or other consequences.

5. Platforms

Your policy should go over each platform your department is currently using, and the specific purpose of using the platform. If there is specific content to be published or not to be published, as well as any specific rules or procedures for the platform, they should be listed in this section.

For example, some departments use Twitter for the sole purpose of disseminating information and do not have any dialogue or activity (such as liking, following, or commenting). This would be outlined in your policy regarding the department’s use of Twitter.

It should be explained in this section that it is the responsibility of each team member to be knowledgeable on changes to the platform’s technology and capabilities, and their terms of service, privacy policies, and any news reports surrounding the platform. 

Social media team members should have a deep understanding of how to obtain assistance or help from each platform’s support center, as well as how to report objectionable content and questionable accounts. Online platforms are not the mechanism for the public to request emergency assistance. But, if a public post includes a threat or suicidal ideations, you will want your social media team to inform the correct personnel in your agency. Social media team members should know to communicate with patrol officers and investigators, and not feel compelled to take action.

6. Equipment and Financial Reimbursements

An explanation of what devices and equipment are to be used should be in this section of your policy. Will your department reimburse an employee for purchasing equipment? Will your department provide funding for food and beverages during a recruitment photo shoot? Are team members allowed to use their own devices to post content?

This section should explain the purchase and use of software to aid in the curation, creation, monitoring, scheduling, and posting of content. 

Graphic about adult use of social media and organizations with policies

7. Responding to Security Threats

Finally, social media is a common resource for criminals and scammers. It’s essential for your social media policy to include guidelines that protect your employees and your company. Whether it’s defending against phishing scams or ransomware attacks, make sure that everyone in your organization is vigilant about online protection.

Include guidelines in your department’s social media policy that cover:

  • How to create secure passwords and set up two-factor authentication for brand and personal social media accounts.
  • How to keep software updated and devices secure.
  • How to identify potential social media risks and attacks
  • How to respond if a security breach takes place.

Your policy should explain legal issues, concerns, and laws or rulings that your team must adhere to, including:

  • Outline copyright laws, and ensure employees know that there are legal constraints on the use of images, music, photos, videos, and graphics. Attribute these copyrighted items to the original owner, or refrain from using them completely to avoid legal action.
  • Applicable laws to law enforcement’s use of social media
  • Applicable laws to PIOs
  • First Amendment Rights
  • Department Terms of Service, Privacy Policies, Disclaimers
  • Accessibility Considerations

“A police department’s leadership should also strongly consider how press releases are disseminated among existing staff. There is a negative impact on employee morale if a friend or family member tells your employee about a significant department-related event shared in a press release before the agency disseminates the information to staff internally.”

Mary Izadi

9. Content Responsibilities

Your policy should indicate what type of content your social media team is authorized to create or curate, and any particular notations for such content, such as:

News Releases

Only approved news releases will be disseminated to the public. For the purpose of this policy, the following items are considered “news releases” when created for a specific incident:

  • Any typed or written document
  • Website “blog” articles
  • Social media posts
  • Graphics
  • Audio recordings
  • Video recordings and content
  • Text messages

Your policy may specify that standard news releases not amounting to more than a blog article or social media post, may be done without further approvals. However, more critical news releases which include special graphics, booking photos, or a video recording will require approval from the appropriate designee.

“A police department’s leadership should also strongly consider how press releases are disseminated among existing staff. There is a negative impact on employee morale if a friend or family member tells your employee about a significant department-related event shared in a press release before the agency disseminates the information to staff internally,” noted Mary Izadi.   

Your policy should cover what is not allowed to be posted on social media or your website, or items that have special instructions or limitations, such as:

  • Sexual assault victim info or details that could lead to a victim being identified
  • Domestic violence victim information
  • Booking photos
  • Crime scene or graphic photos or videos
  • News information that does not originate from the original source
Branding and style guide booklets

10. Branding Conventions

Branding conventions are the guidelines and rules which maintain uniformity for everything produced by the organization. This can include the type of fonts, color codes, and logos that are acceptable to use on produced content.

Your policy should specify that members of the social media team will adhere to the department’s Styling Guide when producing all content.

11. Online Hostility or Conflicts

A department’s social media policy should include how to deal with negative, hostile, or aggressive comments. Your department may have someone on your team specifically tasked with addressing these types of comments. If not, you’ll need to outline how you respond to these comments.

12. Crisis Communications

Social media will be a crucial part of how you handle a crisis. Whether the crisis is a political one, such as a sex scandal, or a physical one, such as an active shooter situation – they both will hit social media and the news quickly and hard.

Your policy should include what the social media team’s responsibilities are during a crisis. 

  • If they learn of a crisis through the news or other source, what actions do team members take? Are they to call a supervisor to see if they’re needed? Are they to automatically respond somewhere?
  • Should they post a pre-approved standard response to eliminate “dead time” on social media and allow them to gather further information and approved messaging from the chain of command?

If your department has invested in specialized training for your social media team members, your policy should give direction on how you deal with:

  • Crimes-in-progress
  • Suicidal or mentally ill individuals
  • Receiving crime tips
  • Online crimes or threats
  • Legal obligations or codes

13. Removal of Content

In California, social media content is part of your department’s records. You’ll want to check with your state laws to see if the same applies to your department.

Your policy should explain the procedures for when content is removed or archived. The policy should indicate where the removed content will be stored, or if you’re using a third-party archiving service or software, what those procedures are in doing so.

Summary

Your department’s social media team policy should be written by someone with a working knowledge of social media, related laws, and common practices. This, along with input and understanding by the department’s leaders, will allow social media team members to effectively and professionally complete their duties, having the knowledge knowing they are backed up, both in writing and figuratively!

About The Author

  • Mike Bires

    Mike Bires is a retired law enforcement officer from Southern California. He was one of the early adopters of social media for use in law enforcement. He has spoken at the IACP and in Washington DC on law enforcement social media. Today, Mike is the Director of Operations for TOC Public Relations and oversees their website development operations.

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