A review into police corruption has found that there is a "significant blurring" between officers' personal and professional lives who use social networking sites such as facebook.
This blur is being named as one of the contemporary factors risking damage to the service's reputation. Given their public office, police officers should be monitored more closely than most employees in how they lead their personal lives if it is believed it could impact on how they are viewed professionally, or indeed the force as a whole.
The kinds of activities which have been warned against on social networking sites, include officers befriending victims of crime or boasting about having beaten up a protester. Studies have also identified the posting of photographs showing excessive drinking and associated behaviour. Figures suggest about 150 police officers from 43 of the 45 police forces in England have been disciplined in some way following their actions on these sites in the last four years. The disciplinary action ranges from warnings to summary dismissal in some cases. Again, a career in the public eye makes it all the more important for justice to not only be done, but to be seen to be done also. It is for this reason that summary dismissal might be justified in these cases. For example, in 2011 an officer was dismissed for having referred to a colleague as a "grass" and a liar on facebook as well as harassing a female colleague.
As well as officers having been dismissed for their actions, the figures actually displayed the fact that some had taken it upon themselves to resign. Of all the 187 complaints recorded many were given written warnings, a large majority were subjected to management action and the rest were withdrawn due to insufficient evidence.
One of the problems is that there are inadequate policies which apply force wide concerning the use of social networking. Whilst it is appreciated for its uses and understood that officers are entitled to a private life, the dangers occur when using the sites to acknowledge a public position and then also display personal opinions. The police would not wish to be associated with the personal opinions of some of its officers if these are for example racist.
What is needed is a clear written policy detailing how to more responsibly use the social networking sites. In the past other professions have suffered for their use of social networking and again the advice was to develop clear guidelines and make them available to staff. In addition, these guidelines need to be followed in a systematic way so as to lead by example and to be fair.
In a study of eight forces, it was found that less than five percent of officers identified themselves in this way. However, 43 out of the 1, 849 officers in the study had been involved in inappropriate behaviour on facebook. It is possible that some simple changes could help alleviate some of the problems faced, such as a request not to have any photos of yourself in uniform on your profile and to ensure that your profile is set to private.