Being a police officer is tough. On a daily basis, police officers put their lives on the line, work long and irregular hours, and deal with a nearly unparalleled level of public scrutiny. While the vast majority of officers are aware of the high ethical standards to which they’re held and make major personal sacrifices to ensure the public trust, a few bad apples have unfortunately damaged that sense of public trust and created a problem for officers across the country.
In recent weeks, media outlets have been writing about the Plain View Project, a collection of over 5,000 inflammatory social media posts made by police officers in departments across the US. For members of distressed communities in particular, this review of police behavior on Facebook has confirmed many people’s worst suspicions about law enforcement. While the project has revealed that there are concerning behaviors that departments might consider addressing, it has also damaged the reputations of many dedicated officers who work hard to ensure public safety.
What can police departments do to restore the trust they’ve worked to build? Though there’s no silver bullet, one step that law enforcement agencies can take is to identify inflammatory and toxic behaviors before they have a chance to enter your department.
The benefit of screening social media in law enforcement
Because it takes just a few bad cops to make all officers look unethical, identifying even a few risky indicators online can help to curb the spread of the sweeping accusations that police departments are experiencing today. Looking at the Plain View Project, the total number of officers with inflammatory content is just 0.1% of sworn officers nationwide, but that’s enough to cause a national uproar. It’s often a small subset of individuals that create most of the problems—which means finding those individuals can make an outsized impact on improving the situation.
While social media is not always a key indicator of toxicity, it’s often a good place to start. According to Lane Crothers, a professor of political science at Illinois State University, many officers who post inflammatory comments online tend to share their thoughts openly and publicly. While some of these posts might reflect a momentary lapse of judgment, others might signal a genuine risk of inappropriate behavior on the job. Regardless of the original intent, Crothers says that many officers believe they’re “reflecting some kind of constitutional spirit,” which is why many of their comments, regardless of potential implications, are on display for the world to see.
Today, police officers live in a world where more and more information, including their social media, is on display to the public. While ensuring public trust in the wake of these recent events can be complicated at best, there’s a lot that can be done to leverage public social media and similar online mediums to help detect future risk and prevent toxic behaviors from finding their way in.