In the past few weeks, the New Britain police badge has grown a lot scarcer on Facebook.
The police department’s new restrictions on social media use drove more than a dozen officers to remove the images of the badge that they’d been using as icons on their personal Facebook pages.
Some erased any mention of their jobs to avoid violating the rules, or tightened up their settings to the maximum privacy level. Despite frustration about the implications for their free speech rights, others simply stopped writing comments about the department and its beleaguered administration.
Similar rules may be coming to other police agencies around the state.
Police chiefs from six communities said they’re drafting formal rules about on-duty and off-duty use of social media sites ranging from Twitter, Facebook and MySpace to Foursquare, YouTube and LinkedIn.
The risk of inadvertently getting into trouble for posting questionable photos, writing inflammatory comments or divulging too much personal information has lurked behind social media users ever since college students began putting up pictures of kegstands and beer pong games on Facebook in 2004.
For police, the pitfalls are numerous: Supervisors, city officials, criminal suspects, news reporters, hostile co-workers and defense attorneys are just some of the people whose attention might be unwelcome.
Police administrators say those risks make formal rules necessary. They acknowledge that regulating off-duty online communication may appear intrusive, but isn’t different from long-standing rules that govern officers’ letters to the editor or comments on radio call-in shows.
Many police departments, such as Naugatuck’s, Manchester’s and Fairfield’s, have had social media policies for more than year. Among those currently planning to write policies are Bristol, Westport, Norwalk, New Canaan, Bloomfield and East Hartford.
“What I’ve seen while researching what should be or should not be included in our policy is that an officer’s personal use of social media is still fairly uncharted territory for a lot of departments,” said Chief Dale Call of Westport. “We seem to be playing catch-up to the rest of the world in terms of how to monitor how our officers use it when off-duty.”
Policies typically prohibit officers from displaying official police emblems, logos or shoulder patches on their social media pages or on personal blogs or websites. Administrators say that rule ensures that nobody misreads an individual officer’s posts or photos as being endorsed by the police force.
New Britain’s policy goes even further, stating “Employees are discouraged from identifying themselves when using social media as employees or representatives of the department.”
Not all chiefs share that concern.
“If an officer identifies them self as a police officer that is OK, just like it would be for any profession,” said Redding Police Chief Douglas S. Fuchs, who heads the state police chiefs association. “As far as badges and patches, those images are readily available online, whether I like it or not.”
Officers at some departments, though, are under specific orders about what they may say on their personal sites. Fairfield forbids posting anything that would “adversely affect the community’s respect or confidence in the department or bring disrepute to any member of the department.”
The new New Britain policy prohibits communications that “negatively affect public perception of the department.” Some officers privately say that’s a tough rule in a department whose internal clashes fueled an entire website – nbpdsucks.com – for more than seven years. The site was run by a former officer who shielded the identities of posters; so much traffic had moved to Facebook in the past year, though, that he shut it down this spring.