I received a digital imagery/social media question from a fire chief that has an interesting twist.
A member of my department recently posted several photos from the scene of a fatal accident in my jurisdiction on his Facebook page. The member was not working for my department at the time the pictures were taken, but rather was working as a police officer. I understand the pictures were taken as part of the accident investigation. However I feel that posting the pictures on a social network page is very unprofessional and morally wrong. We currently have a policy limiting on-duty photo taking, but nothing that directly prohibits this kind of action. What would be the best way to handle the situation? As of right now I have not received any complaints from any family members of the deceased or from the public. The pictures and caption were e-mailed to me, and am concerned if I ignore the situation it may come back to haunt me.
Questions like this raise two different sets of issues in my mind. One is legal and we will discuss those at length below. The second is leadership. It would be a mistake to focus only on the legal implications of this problem. Perhaps the best way to address this problem is simply to have a sit down with the member involved to express your concerns that his conduct raises for him, for you, and for both organizations. Incidentally, you may want to suggest he check out http://firelawblog.com/category/you-cant-make-this-stuff-up/ if he has a tough time understanding where you are coming from.
From the legal perspective, my first analysis would look at what your policies say. Two policies are implicated: (1) the digital imagery/photography policy and (2) the social media policy.
Does the digital imagery policy address on-duty photo taking only, or does it extend to off-duty photo taking of job related activities? Does the social media policy restrict the posting of job-related content? Does it have a code of conduct component that applies to all social media activities?
I am a proponent of clear rules. There are two reasons for this. First, it is a legal requirement. Due process prohibits us from disciplining a member for violating vague or ambiguous rules. Second – it is a leadership responsibility. We owe a responsibility to our personnel to provide clear and unambiguous direction. It serves no purpose to discipline a member for doing something that is not clearly a rule violation.
Remember, the purpose of discipline is to change behavior, not to punish. Leadership by sneak-attack upon unsuspecting employees serves no purpose. In my experience when officers try to discipline personnel for borderline misconduct it is more often about the officer feeling pressure to “do something”, and less about a sincere effort to “change behavior”.
Consider the following “code of conduct” provision I use in my social media policies:
When engaging in social media or social networking activities, all personnel will maintain a level of professionalism in both on-duty and off-duty conduct that is consistent with the honorable mission of our department. The publication of any statement, comment, imagery, or information through any medium of communication indicated herein, which is potentially adverse to the operation, morale, or efficiency of this department, will be deemed to be a violation of this policy.
Even this rule applied to the facts is not 100% clear and unambiguous. However, at a minimum, it allows for an opportunity to discuss the situation with the employee and perhaps “change behavior” – not through discipline but through leadership. The employee can also be cautioned about the behavior using this rule as a basis with the understanding that any further posting of a similar nature will be considered to be a violation. In addition, the offending photos can be ordered to be removed as violating the policy.
Another angle on this case, we are struggling with this issue because another organization apparently does not have any policies on digital imagery or social media. Perhaps a sit down with the police chief may be in order as well.
Finally, unusual situations like this are helpful because they force us to evaluate the soundness of our policies and the need to update them. The facts here speak to the need to extend the scope of your policies to regulate this type of conduct.