Sneak peek: How North Carolina’s new sheriffs get a crash course in social media and the First Amendment

Social media is good for letting people share information -- sometimes, it's just too good. That can be good for law enforcement officers trying to gather intelligence. It can also be bad news for the same officers if they don't use common sense.

The presentation is intended to help newly-elected sheriffs around North Carolina craft social media policy in their offices. (Port City Daily / City of Wilmington)
The presentation is intended to help newly-elected sheriffs around North Carolina craft social media policy in their offices. (Port City Daily / City of Wilmington)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — We all know (at least) one person who routinely goes too far on social media. Well, it’s not different for law enforcement, which is why North Carolina’s newly elected sheriff’s are getting a crash course on how to keep their employees from being “fired by Facebook.”

The presentation, created by Wilmington Deputy City Attorney Meredith Everhart, addresses policies, laws, and liabilities created by social media and mobile devices.

The major issue: people lack common sense when it comes to using Facebook and other platforms. That can be a benefit to law enforcement, especially for intelligence gathering on people who “overshare” online. It can also be problematic when officers do the same thing.


According to Everhart, the slideshow was created for “the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association Leadership Conference, as part of their training for newly-elected Sheriffs in the state.”

The presentation is intended as a general guideline, and Everhart encouraged every office to consult their own county attorney.

Intelligence gathering

Facebook groups: It's not just for book clubs and pickeball teams. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington.)
Facebook groups: It’s not just for book clubs and pickleball teams. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington.)

Law enforcement officers around the country have posed as minors as part of child-predator sting operations, with Facebook being a major avenue. The tactic can be effective, but it’s also time-consuming and regulated by entrapment laws.

Sometimes, a passive approach can be just as effective.

The Wilmington Police Department, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, and District Attorney Ben David’s anti-gang injunction have all utilized information posted by validated gang members on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube in order to solve crimes — but it’s hardly a local phenomenon.

As the presentation notes, “Gangs LOVE Social media.”

Offenders frequently post details – and often photos – of crimes they’ve committed, the presentation notes; likewise, witnesses often discuss events they’ve “seen or heard about.” Facebook can provide crucial evidence, including personal communication, motives and relationships, time-stamped locations to prove or disprove alibis, and more.

Some gangs have gone as far as to create Facebook groups complete with a set of members.

For law enforcement, that’s pretty convenient.

It’s not just gangs, law enforcement can use social media to keep tabs on activists and protest groups as well, the presentation notes.

No common sense

No one is immune from misusing social media. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)
No one is immune from misusing social media. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)

“Unfortunately, criminals are not the only ones who misuse social media and post stupid things online,” the presentation states.

The presentation encourages “common sense” guidelines, like not using social media while on duty, not posting about official duties or confidential information, and not sending sexually inappropriate messages or posts while on duty or using department-issued phones. These guidelines include posts made from private accounts and officers appearing in other people’s social media posts.

But common sense doesn’t always prevail.

The presentation lists a number of actions that common sense should have stopped, but didn’t:

A lapse of common sense at the Twin Peaks Restaurant and Bar in Round Rock Texas cost one deputy his job. (Port City Daily photo / CBS News)
A lapse of common sense at the Twin Peaks Restaurant and Bar in Round Rock Texas cost one deputy his job. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington and CBS News)

-Don’t take and post a picture while you’re on duty of a dead body at the crime scene to your Facebook wall — an officer in New Bedford, MA was accused of that in 2010.

-Don’t post a picture of yourself in uniform under the “casual encounters” section of Craigslist seeking women in “friends with benefits-type relationship” who are “willing to play out police fantasy” — a different officer in New Bedford, MA was suspending in 2009 after admitting to doing just that.

-While on duty, don’t pose for pictures with women under the age of 21 with liquor bottles nearby — a Massachuttes State Police Sargeant did just that; then one of the women shared it on her Facebook. When a local Fox News affiliate saw it, the outlet sent it to the State Police, leading to an investigation. 

A lapse of common sense in Massachusetts led to an internal investigation of a State Police sergeant. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)
A lapse of common sense in Massachusetts led to an internal investigation of a State Police sergeant. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)

-Don’t make posts alluding to drug raids you’re going to take part in with the FBI and the two streets enclosing the area to be raided — a police Sergeant in Sandy Springs, GA, was fired for that 2012 (author’s note: not included in the presentation, the officer filed a federal lawsuit that was thrown out in 2013).

Policy: Social media and employee phones

From the presentation on social media policy for the North Carolina Sheriff's Association. Employers, including law enforcement, have to balance the First Amendment with concerns over job safety and confidential information. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)
From the presentation on social media policy for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. Employers, including law enforcement, have to balance the First Amendment with concerns over job safety and confidential information. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)

Law enforcement departments, like any employer, face a challenge in balancing the need to control sensitive information with the First Amendment. To that end, the presentation advises against a media blackout.

“Don’t impose a ban on all controversial or difficult topics,” the presentation suggests. “This ‘stay quiet’ or ‘keep your grievances internal’ attitude has a potential be problematic for the First Amendment. The more your policy respects the First Amendment, the more enforcement power it will have.”

North Carolina legislators have also addressed the issue. In particular, the presentation notes H.B. 846 from 2013.

The bill would have made it illegal for employers, including law enforcement, to require employees to disclose user names and passwords to private accounts, or otherwise give employers access to those accounts — further, it would have made it illegal to fire employees for refusing any such requests.

Also, it would have made it illegal to use tracking devices to monitor or track private electronic communication devices.

Will the bill essentially died in committee, the presentation advises sheriffs, “you should not be surprised when something like this comes back around.”

A final issue is employee phones.

The presentation notes several notable examples of both local and federal law enforcement agencies where employees acted irresponsibly or criminally using an employer-issued phone. And, while federal law prevents employers from intercepting or monitoring employee devices, there’s an exception for work-issued phones.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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