If you are a sadistic, blood-thirsty police officer out to punish (what you consider to be) evildoers (read: minorities) with no regard to civil rights or due process, no problem. Just don't go telling anyone about it online.
According to an article in The New York Times, police departments across America are struggling to create policies for how officers share on Social Networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Police departments are having trouble prosecuting cases where the officers involved have gone online and posted sexist, racist, or pernicious status updates. Reputations have been hurt by trophy photos and photos of police officers behaving badly on their off time- often including guns and hateful speech.
I grew up in Los Angeles, so the egregious behavior is hardly shocking to me. What amazes me, is that not a single representative from any of the departments included in the article was concerned with the behavior itself, only the effect on their reputation when that behavior is made public.
In other words, it's not important that there are officers that may harbor racist predjudices or who view their job as vigilantisim and may act out on innocent citizens. What is important is if the department is perceived as having officers who are sadistic and/or racist.
Nevermind that this could be a powerful device for uncovering bad behavior, for finding the bad apples; the police department's public image is on the line. Since most police departments already have a PR apparatus for handling police brutality and racial profiling, it's better to stick with familiar problems and let the system run its course. The collateral damage of ruined lives, injured people, and damaged community relations be damned!
They do go so far as to acknowledge social media as a tool for outing bad cops, but only potential bad cops. Social media may help departments determine whether or not to give someone a badge and gun, but after that, any untweeted horror of the mind is fair game.
It's appalling that law enforcement leadership could overlook officers who express attitudes that clearly violate civil rights and focus instead on controling social media to keep those ideas from becoming public relations problems. Furthermore, departments are curtailing free speech for police officers and seeking First Amendment loopholes in setting policies to stop them expressing themselves online. It's a dereliciton of duty in the most profound sense.
Society should hold police officers up to a higher standard. Are they allowed to go online and vent after spending a day toiling with the society's worst elements? Sure. If they do, should they be judged? Yes. Police officers may have extraordinarily difficult and dangerous jobs, they may not get the respect they deserve from the governement or from citizens, but they wield extraordinary power over people's lives. They carry guns, Tasers, manacles, clubs. They put people in jail and, in America, they send some to their death. In that sense they hold superhuman powers, and I don't think it's unfair to ask that they have superhuman ethics.
We should also hold their leadership to a higher standard. Political damage control should be subordinate to retaining the best possible police force and protecting civil rights for officers and citizens. The New York Times should have pointed that out, but then again the Paper of Record isn't exactly held up to the high journalistic standards it should be either.
Artwork by Shepard Fairey