Officers face increasingly strict social media scrutiny

Officers face increasingly strict social media scrutiny
A photo posted to an officer's social media (Source: MPD)
A photo posted to an officer's social media (Source: MPD)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Nearly two dozen Memphis police officers have been suspended or fired for social media posts over the past few years.

From the innocent to the outright offensive, social media showcases it all. For Memphis' finest, their activity online undergoes increased scrutiny.

Memphis Police Department's digital media policy bans employees from making offensive comments about the department, the city, or its citizens. It also says officers should not post photos of an MPD badge or logo, their weapon or body armor, or themselves in uniform.

"Having that policy in place I think is just kind of them heading off any problems before they arise," University of Memphis assistant professor Dr. Amanda Nell Edgar said. "I think the policy seems to be really clearly drafted to make sure that the particular imagery of what a police officer is in Memphis is protected."

Edgar is an expert on social media, but it doesn't take an expert to have an opinion on what should be said and shared on social media.

"That's not what they're supposed to be about. It's awful," Memphian Bill Walton said about officers posting controversial things on social media. "They have a job to protect the citizens of Memphis."

Days after protestors shut down the I-40 bridge, Memphis police officer Michael Malone posted an image of someone pointing a gun at an emoji of a black person on Snapchat.

Malone resigned after he and another officer, James Fort, were suspended with pay for posting the image.

Edgar said posts like that can hurt the credibility of the entire department, not just the officers involved.

"Because we do tend to think of the police as one body. What that means is that if individual police officers are posting egregiously racist and--that's quite a violent image, as well--that really does project onto other people wearing that uniform," Edgar said.

Of the 18 closed cases reviewed by the WMC Action News 5 Investigators, the violations were wide-ranging. They spanned from relatively minor offenses like officers posting selfies in uniform or with their weapons, to more serious offenses like officers posting information about calls they responded to or making disparaging remarks about the communities they serve.

In January 2015, officer Paris Glass resigned from the department. She was in hot water for appearing with known gang members in a rap video depicting a violent kidnapping and murder.

Glass also posted pictures of herself in uniform with known gang members throwing up gang signs.

In 2013, officer Brian Hall was suspended for 10 days after the Federal Bureau of Investigation zeroed in on tweets he sent during a Ku Klux Klan rally in Memphis.

One of the tweets read, "If anybody have bombs, they are on bus 4004," referring to the bus carrying Klan members.

Hall told investigators he did not post the comments out of hate. However, his intentions didn't matter; Hall still faced disciplinary action for the tweets.

"They have to be conscientious of what they're doing and putting out, and how it may be perceived," Memphian Wayne Hardy said. "Even if they might not be racist, they might be racist, you know? Whatever it may be, that's completely separate. But it's how it's perceived by the public--that's important."

In some cases, digital media violations took a backseat to real crimes--like in the case of officer Ericck Cain. Cain admitted to sending nude photos to a 14-year-old girl through his Gmail account and having sex with her. Cain was fired from the department and charged with statutory rape.

In May 2013, officer Brian Phillips was charged with filing a false report. Investigators said he lied about being the victim of credit card fraud. MPD also disciplined Phillips for posting pictures on his Facebook page of his department-issued handgun, squad car, and wreckage from an accident he worked.

"I do think it's important to look at these incidents on an individual basis, because sometimes it seems very obvious what the outcome should be and sometimes it's a much more nuanced situation." Edgar said.

Edgar said, big or small, social media policy violations by law enforcement officers do matter.

"The only way that police forces can be effective is by establishing trust and credibility with their citizens," Edgar said. "If citizens don't trust police, lots of things go wrong. I think we have ample evidence of that in our culture right now."

MPD currently has four open digital media violation investigations. Shelby County Sheriff's Office said it had disciplined just two deputies for violating digital media policies since it was put in place in 2010.

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