The dangers of social media for law enforcement take center stage amid series of scandals: Analysis

PHOTO: A police officer looks at his phone in a squad car.PlaySTOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
WATCH News headlines today: Sept. 16, 2019

The recent revelation of a secret Facebook group that included current and former Customs and Border Protection personnel who made offensive posts about migrant deaths and lawmakers once again raises the specter of law enforcement officers on social media.

In this case, it is alleged that members of the group, which included current and former members of the Border Patrol, posted content that at the least is unprofessional and may be against agency policy and at the worst, is disgusting. The agents were placed on administrative duty and CBP said the actions were not "reflective of the men and women we have."

While this is the most recent prominent example of alleged law enforcement officer misuse of social media, it isn’t the only. In Philadelphia, 72 officers have been taken off the street for alleged improper social media posts.

And in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a police officer’s Facebook listing of his occupation as “human waste disposal” led the department's chief to say he was "disgusted" with the officer's actions. That officer fatally shot and killed a suspect during a traffic stop.

With more than 1 million law enforcement officers taking to the streets every day to protect America, these incidents still appear to be rare, as many officers are aware of the pitfalls of social media. But law enforcement is grappling with is a generational shift -- with newer officers preferring to use social media and cyber platforms for communication, rather than a phone or the pen.

With that, the law enforcement community finds itself stuck in a rather untenable position of trying to balance an officer's right to free speech versus a department’s right to regulate conduct.

First, in order to have a social media account -- a real one -- a law enforcement officer has to disclose certain personal information such as his or her name, email address and location. While there are security settings on social media platforms, they are often complicated and intensive to navigate, which is intentional.

Social media is meant to be "social" and an individual trying to keep their activity private cuts against the reason for the platform.

Creating a basic social media account potentially allows any individual who wants to target that officer or their family to get free information, as 1,600 agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement discovered. The Nebraska branch of the anti-fascist group antifa reportedly posted all of their personal information in one location.

Second, fake accounts and contacts are rampant in social media. That could potentially place law enforcement officers in direct contact with a criminal, convict, terrorist or worse. Additionally, these individuals can take a law enforcement officer's posts, especially pictures, edit them and try to make them look compromised. Why run that risk?

Third, many departments have adopted social media policies that try to limit or inhibit an officer’s use of social media, such as Baltimore's,which recognizes "every member's Constitutional right to freedom of speech," but regulates things such as publishing photos depicting officers in uniform without express consent.

This is done in order to protect the department and officer. Social media posts are often brief and context can get lost. Officers who post, especially those who post often, run the risk of having a post misinterpreted or viewed out of context.

Fourth, social media is filled with many people who seek self-aggrandizement, drama or excitement in their lives and have a platform to achieve it at their fingertips. It is also trolled by individuals looking to make law enforcement officers look bad. This places law enforcement officers in the precarious position of interacting with an unknown individual who might be looking to bait, trap or ruin an officer’s career.

Finally, in order to get into law enforcement these days, a number of departments require divulging of social media accounts and passwords so they can check the accounts of prospective officers. The end result has been an increased difficulty in hiring officers due to issues cited on their social media accounts. Departments can’t run the risk of hiring someone who could be discredited on the witness stand or won’t pass a background check due to their social media activity.

Social media, despite its usefulness as a communications and investigative tool, is full of traps and pitfalls for any law enforcement officer. It has created a multitude of issues in the law enforcement profession and its improper use has cost careers.

As I’ve told people trying to get into law enforcement who have social media accounts, that college beer funnel photo may have been fun, but on a witness stand a few years later it will be more painful to defend than the hangover.

Donald J. Mihalek is an ABC News contributor, retired senior Secret Service agent and regional field training instructor who also serves as the executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation.

Richard Frankel is an ABC News contributor and retired FBI special agent who was the special agent in charge of the FBI's Newark Division and prior to that, the FBI's NY Joint Terrorism Task force. He is currently the Vice President of Investigation for T&M Protection Resources.

The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of ABC News.