Police officers responsible for hundreds of breaches of social media guidelines

Out-Law News | 19 Aug 2014 | 12:20 pm | 1 min. read

Police officers and other police staff in England and Wales were subject to more than 800 investigations into their conduct on social media during a five year period that ended in February, newly disclosed figures have revealed.

In 9% of the 828 cases recorded, the officers involved either resigned, retired or had their employment terminated. In 14% of cases, no action was taken. The figures were obtained by the Press Association following freedom of information requests to the police authorities, according to a report by the BBC.

According to a report by the Guardian, the most investigations carried out by a single force into officers' behaviour on social media during the five year period were conducted by Greater Manchester Police, with 88 such investigations launched in that time. West Midlands Police investigated 74 social media cases and Metropolitan Police recorded 69 investigations during the same period.

Examples of the cases investigated included where police staff had made racist, homophobic or religiously aggressive comments online, the BBC's report said. Another example was where confidential information about a forthcoming police operation was posted on Facebook by a police constable in Nottinghamshire, the Guardian's report said.

A code of ethics implemented last month by the College of Policing (34-page / 436KB PDF), a professional body that sets standards for police officers, contains a warning about the risks of using social media. The code requires officers to "use social media responsibly and safely" and ensure that what they publish online cannot "reasonably be perceived by the public or your policing colleagues to be discriminatory, abusive, oppressive, harassing, bullying, victimising, offensive or otherwise incompatible with policing principles".

The code also prohibits police officers from publishing material online "that might undermine your own reputation or that of the policing profession or might run the risk of damaging public confidence in the police service".

Chief constable Alex Marshall, the College of Policing's chief executive, said the code "sets out the standards" which all police staff should look to uphold "whether at work or away from work, online or offline".

"The vast majority of police officers and staff uphold these high standards and in many cases are responsible for challenging and reporting colleagues who act improperly or unlawfully," Marshall said. "Where people working in policing have undermined their own reputation or that of the wider service, they must face appropriate action. These figures include relatively minor matters, which can be dealt with by management advice, through to cases of misconduct which, quite rightly have resulted in officers and staff losing their jobs. There is no place in policing for officers who abuse the trust placed in us by the public."

Last month technology law specialist Luke Scanlon of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said organisations should carry out regular reviews of their social media strategy to ensure they are not exposed to legal risks.