On police and social media. Where’s the line?

Social media is a relatively new phenomenon, and just like any other corporation, small business or individual, police departments are still trying to figure out ways to use it in a productive way.

Some uses are obvious. Social media is a no-brainer when it comes to disseminating important information such as Amber alerts or suspect descriptions to community members who follow police department accounts online.

Neutral posts describing crimes generally are both informative and, let’s face it, entertaining to many readers. The public loves controversy and stories that spark emotion. No other entity has access to such a wide array of that sort of content as police departments.

Day after day, law enforcement officers respond to calls for people in all sorts of pain and distress and misery, much of which is captured on video or camera by police officers.

What responsibility do police departments have to protect the privacy of people caught at their worst on film?

This picture making its way around the internet right now is what’s driving me to ask this question today.


Photo courtesy of East Liverpool, Ohio Police Department

The photograph above is currently eliciting a lot of talk and emotion online. It was presumably taken by a police officer who was on a call relative to a couple overdosing on drugs in a car as the four year old son of the mother looked on from the back seat.

I think the public has little issue with this photo being presented in court as evidence that yes, the couple was on drugs and in no condition to be out for a drive. Some people are calling these people “victims” and “addicts” and saying they need help, not punishment or embarrassment.

I disagree with that to the extent that they drove with a small boy in the car and then passed out with him in the back seat.

Today it worked out fine, but what if they had been driving on a hot day and passed out in a running car with the windows up? What if they had an accident? What if they’d have killed somebody else who had nothing to do with being in this car?

These two broke the law when they chose to ingest drugs.

They could have made better choices with respect to how and where they got high while they were still sober. Find a sitter or bring your shit home to use.


They are addicts and they really are sick.

Just look at them for God’s sake. They look like zombies.

As a long time police officer, I’ve seen the ravages of drug addiction. People do crazy things to get that “fix” that they so desperately crave. Suburbanites drive into the dark alleys of the worst city streets to meet with strangers to buy their pills. They steal from their own family members, and even trade their bodies for drugs or cash.

There’s no doubt it’s not as simple as just quitting.

Back to the picture though.

Skirting the issue of whether or not we think it’s right or wrong to charge these two criminally, the issue of the picture being posted on  a police department Facebook account is interesting.

Some people are mad, while others think it’s great.

News outlets love this sort of story. News outlets request pictures and other records from law enforcement all the time, which begs this question for me, – if a reporter had known this photo existed, and requested it from the police department, would the department have given it to them or would they have told the reporter that it was a closed record?

When a record in possession of the government is closed for whatever reason, then the public has no right of access to it. Some of you may be familiar with the Freedom of Information Act, or, as it’s known in Missouri, the Sunshine Laws.

Records are oftentimes closed, by law, for any number of reasons. It may be because they contain information that is very private (medical records) or because they may put a victim or other person in harm’s way or cause embarrassment or shame (sexual assault victims).

The problem with the photograph here, in the eyes of many, is an issue of trust.

To me, if it is a closed record, then the department better not be posting it online (I’m not saying it is a closed record). If they would not have given this photo to a journalist, then they had no business posting it themselves. That’s just my opinion.

Is the police department using the photo to say, “Look at all this crap we have to deal with, John Q. Public! You should have more sympathy for us.” Or, was it posted to truly show how awful drug abuse is and what a toll it’s taking on our communities?

I personally don’t see how this photograph does anything but make the police department seem, at the very least, insensitive.

We as police officers have become too involved in our jobs to be able to step aside and see that we must behave differently than the general public. We are the ones who insist that we are always on duty, and that we must be held to a higher standard, but when we’re called out for not doing so, we get unnecessarily butt hurt about it.

This job can’t be taken personally.

It just can’t.

Had an officer taken this picture and posted it on his personal Facebook page because he truly thinks that the drug problem is out of control, and that he thought the picture would help wake folks up, he still would have been reprimanded by his department. That the department brass, city and legal decision makers decided that it wasn’t illegal to post, doesn’t make it right for them to do what they’d never let an individual officer do.

Similarly, there are online squabbles made by officers who are talking about refusing to work 49er’s football games because of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem stance, as well as other anti-this or that protest we disagree with being made by officers. We hate protests. Not working the games because the team is dreadful is one thing, but to say that police officers are offended by the actions of a few people, so we’re going home, is ridiculous.

It’s harder to suck it up and do your job, so that is what we as officers must do, each and every time we are hurt or offended.

If you we go home, we lose automatically. If we stay and conduct ourselves professionally, we will never lose.

Whether that’s at a a riot, a football game, or a simple call for a drug overdose, we must be the better side.

We shouldn’t be making waves or taking sides when to do so puts us in a negative light.

Some of you may read this and think I’m being a hypocrite, and you may be right. This photo I used in a post two years ago now was certainly meant to tear at peoples’ emotions, and I knew it would because when I saw the shirt, it tore at mine.

FullSizeRender (5)

The difference between this photo and that of the couple in the car is that I took this at the hospital. It was taken with no victim or suspect or involved party around.

The police report says something about trying to keep the woman’s airway open, but the photo tells me that there is an officer’s arm holding her head up in what looks like a way to see her face more clearly. I hope that’s a wrong interpretation, because the officers should first and foremost be trying to protect that baby and even the adults, prior to any thoughts of taking photographs, evidentiary or otherwise.

Did part of me post my picture wanting people to say, “Look at all this crap we have to deal with, John Q. Public! You should have more sympathy for us!?”

Yes, of course I did. I was proud of my friend and the job we tried to do that night.

But, I also truly hoped that the sight of a six year old’s blood all over the shirt of a police officer would help foster discussion and anger and frustration at the senseless violence our city is dealing with.

In that way, social media is a quandary for law enforcement.

We need to use it to inform and educate the public, but when we’re seen as using it to embarrass others or garner sympathy for ourselves unfairly in hard times for us, we must expect to be called out on it.

Authentic moments caught on video are great, but when law enforcement starts to stage interactions between officers and minorities or kids or whoever, then I would tend to agree with any public bemoaning that we’re trying too hard and failing.

There’s a fine line between using social media as a shield and a sword, and we’re still trying to figure that out.

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7 Responses to On police and social media. Where’s the line?

  1. I just can’t help wondering … is it even legal to post a recognizable picture of the kid in circumstances like this?

    As for the parents, I have NO sympathy for them. They’re sick and they need help but they’re still capable of making choices. That said, I think it’s wrong for the police to post their picture without permission. These are human beings, however sick and horrible they may be, and if I wouldn’t want my picture published without my permission, then I don’t have a right to post anyone else’s picture without their permission.

    This is invasion of privacy, plain and simple. We no longer conduct public executions, either, for the same reason. We don’t put people in the stocks, we don’t sew a scarlet A to their shirtfronts. Even registered sex offenders’ information is published without pictures, as far as I know; at any rate, anyone can find it but it’s not spread all over social media.

    The picture of the bloody shirt, Don, was a whole different issue. It was a kick in the gut – I remember that story. And it’s a shirt, not a recognizable person.

  2. Paul says:

    Complex Don and in this case I believe the picture of the addicts is wrong in many ways and should never have been released to the public by the police. Your picture of the police uniform stained by the blood of a child is perfect and makes exactly the emotional impact desired to make change happen.

    The child in Photo /1 has done absolutely nothing illegal and is a victim (neglect and endangering)- and yet his face is clearly visible in association with those who are being accused of illegal activities..A good way to judge would be to ask yourself how you would feel if it was you sitting in that back seat, completely innocent and yet grouped in with violators. Social media is often checked by prospective employers – how would that photo affect your impression on others?

    I assume the two adults were found guilty before this photo was published – if not that is another wrong. And then there is the optics. A trial would make this photo available as one point of trials is to make justice transparent (i.e. public domain). That said, it is still not a good idea for the police to publish it. I used to haul gas into small rural communities and one day I came to a new site to deliver and saw that the owner had posted all bounced checks with a personal photo inside the station. It created a serious demoralization of the community and a lot of anger. Right or wrong, the optics are damaging because the publisher has a stake in the incident. Revenge, real or perceived, is destructive to long term positive changes and healing.

  3. tric says:

    It’s simple for me, it should not be posted. As someone who used to nurse I wonder why it’s never a nurse posting photos of the ludicrous, the evil or the cruel that appear into hospitals.
    Was there once a time when police officers would never have posted either?
    Social norms are changing and trial by media the norm now.
    There is no such thing as privacy any more.

  4. hmunro says:

    If the couple had agreed to let this photo be used in a PSA as part of a plea bargain, that would be one matter. But for the police to post this on Facebook without the couple’s consent? I agree with your other readers: WRONG. One could argue that the couple were in a public place and thus had no expectation of privacy, but the thing is that they were in a vulnerable state when this image was made — by an officer who was there to *protect and serve.* With all the crap that’s going on right now, police departments can’t afford to risk eroding public trust, and for me unfortunately that’s exactly what this photo does.

    • Paul says:

      Perfect hmunro – to protect and serve -> which do you suppose they were doing when they posted this? Here in Canada yesterday they caught an off duty police officer engaging in pedophilia – on the street at night on camera. They blurred his face when they showed it. Why would addicts not get the same treatment/

  5. Paul says:

    As an aside Don, I have a guest post over at Mark Bialczak’s https://markbialczak.com/2016/09/11/potpourri/ I would be honored if you had the time to drop by for a read and comment. Thank You.

  6. Michaela says:

    Time recently did a piece about this specific situation. In it, the police involved with the case were quoted as saying, they knew it was a sticky choice to post the image for the whole world to see, and if they had to make that choice again, they wouldn’t change a thing. Why? Desperation. The opioid addiction situation in that area has grown into a crisis, and the local health and safety services providers are stretching thin – so they believed that only the shock value of seeing that image could get the public’s attention.

    “[The] photo of the boy did make [a rehab clinic] possible. ‘That picture started getting agencies and policy makers, and law enforcement talking about the epidemic going on…It drew attention to more resources, and access for people needing treatment.’”

    Sometimes it takes breaking the rules and taking a risk to make an impact. I think law enforcement made the right choice in sharing that picture.

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