150 U.K. Police Officers Disciplined For Inappropriate Facebook Posts
It seems every week another employee gets fired or disciplined for posting an inappropriate something on Facebook. Some jobholders are particularly vulnerable, like teachers, who can get in trouble for uploading photos of themselves drinking, for example, or posting vaguely homicidal remarks about their students. Police officers also face censure more than most. In the United Kingdom, at least 150 police officers have been disciplined for crude Facebook posts over the last four years.
In that time at least two police officers were fired and seven others resigned over their Facebook accounts, according to data from 41 of the 43 forces in England and Wales, released under the Freedom of Information Act. At least 187 complaints have been made against officers' Facebook antics in this time, according to The Sun. Thirty-two complaints were withdrawn, or led to no disciplinary action, but 47 officers received written warnings, nine others got final written warnings, and one was issued a formal warning.
Officers have been found guilty of: posting a racist comment (he was fired); referring to another officer as a "grass" and a "liar" and harassing a female colleague (also fired); and for comments accompanying a video which shows a youth with a knife as he's tackled by officers in a police station, "Look at this stupid c***, hope he gets a good f****** shoeing in the cells" (fined three days' pay).
"We found a significant blurring between people's professional lives on social networking sites and their private lives which may be in the public domain and ... which probably should remain extremely private," said Roger Baker, who led a review into U.K. police corruption. But Baker admits that policies surrounding these issues are sparse and inconsistent.
The same problems have cropped up on U.S. soil. It recently emerged that dozens of New York City police officers had posted racist remarks in a Facebook group about Brooklyn's West Indian Day Parade. Officers called the parade revelers "animals," "savages" and "filth." "Drop a bomb and wipe them all out," said one comment. "Let them kill each other," said another. "It's not racist if it's true," added another.
Of course, it's not illegal to be a racist. And when these officers were posting on Facebook they were presumably off-duty and spewing hateful thoughts on leisure time. But given the public nature of these comments, the proper recourse isn't so clear.
One Massachusetts high school teacher was forced to resign in August after calling her students "germ bags" and the parents "snobby" on Facebook. A Georgia teacher was fired a couple of months later for posting a vacation photo of her holding alcoholic drinks and mentioning that she was heading to a game of "Crazy Bitch Bingo."
The National Labor Relations Board established at least one precedent about Facebook-based firing in October. After five employees at Hispanics United of Buffalo, a New York nonprofit, were fired for criticizing a colleague, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that this speech was in fact protected under federal labor law.
But it's the area outside the law that's the murkiest for employers and employees. Many workplaces lack comprehensive policies on social media, and if your workplace is a school or a police station, a clear set of rules seems to be sorely needed.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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