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Upstate N.Y. cops eye social media policies

7:39 AM, Dec 23, 2013   |    comments
This is the Facebook page of Pleasantville, N.Y., officer Peter Burns (Photo: None)
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PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y. -- A Pleasantville police officer's vulgar, racially offensive Facebook rant about President Barack Obama got him suspended last week and could lead to his dismissal, even as law enforcement agencies in the Lower Hudson Valley are adopting or considering social media policies.

Used correctly, authorities say social media can be a valuable public relations, crime prevention and investigative tool for police.

"We use Twitter and Facebook to get messages out to the public and for investigations," Rockland County Undersheriff Robert Van Cura said. "We've had a social media policy for a few years now. We tell our officers that whatever they might put out there is public, and that they should act accordingly. Police officers are held to a higher standard in many things, their use of social media is just the latest example."

Pleasantville Police Officer Peter Burns was suspended Tuesday, after he apparently posted what Chief Richard Love described as "despicable" statements about Obama on his private Facebook page, which he posted on under the alias "Coon Trapper."

The obscenity-filled diatribe, which was obtained by The Journal News, included the use of the "N-word," called the president a "Muslim commie" and suggested that he should "die in a shallow grave."

Love, saying the post was "totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated," has ordered an internal investigation and said the department will "consider all legal options," including possibly firing Burns.

Similar incidents over the past several years have landed cops in hot water across the country. In 2009, three Harrison, N.Y., police officers were suspended and demoted after making lewd comments about then-Supervisor Joan Walsh and swapping racist jokes about Obama. Last year, the New York City Police Department suspended 17 of its officers for posting racist and offensive comments on a Facebook page devoted to the city's 2011 West Indian Day Parade. In November, an Odessa, Texas, police officer was reprimanded for stating on his private Facebook page that his new gun "already has names on the bullets."

Just as common are examples of law enforcement using social media to its advantage. A number of departments including White Plains police, the Rockland County Sheriff's Office and the Westchester County Police Academy have Facebook pages, and many more have their own websites. Simple Google searches reveal countless stories of police finding lost kids, recovering stolen property and capturing criminals through social media tips and investigations.

The Pleasantville Police Department does not have a social media policy, but many departments in the area are considering them. State police in Connecticut adopted one this year, as did the NYPD. A 2010 FBI Bulletin suggests that police "must establish criteria for social media usage that balances the constitutional rights of officers while protecting the integrity of departments and investigations."

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has an entire "Center for Social Media" website with suggested policies, links to resources and tips on the use of social media by law enforcement agencies.

Scarsdale Police Chief John Brogan, president of the Westchester County Chiefs of Police Association, said such policies have been discussed at association meetings.

"It's definitely something that we all have to look at," he said.

Harrison, N.Y., Police Chief Anthony Marraccini said his department did not have a social media policy when the three cops were suspended for their Facebook comments in 2009.

While "we do have very strict rules and regulations regarding the off-duty conduct of our officers," he said, "we are taking a close look at social media issues and considering adopting a policy to address those issues."

White Plains police adopted a social media policy this year, but Robert Riley, president of the White Plains Police Benevolent Association, said he's advised members to be aware of what they post online even before the policy was written.

"At most of our meetings, I tell our people to be careful and protect themselves, because there's no such thing as private anymore," he said. "It doesn't surprise me that so many departments are adopting official policies. It protects the department and the employee."

RICHARD LIEBSON, The Westchester (N.Y.) Journal News

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