Most Facebook pages run by law enforcement agencies follow a fairly predictable pattern. Posts about arrests or public safety notifications are common. New staff hires or promotions get a lot of play, as do heartwarming stories about interactions with the community.
That’s why two controversial posts last month, one from Knox County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kimberly Glenn and one on the agency's page itself, turned into a firestorm that ended with a 15-year-old teen, whose brother was killed by Knoxville police at his school, losing the deli job she worked as a part of her healing process.
Now a Knox County commissioner, who sharply condemned a “lack of compassion and empathy,” is looking into creating a community board to review sheriff's department policies and discipline.
Dasha Lundy has asked voters to speak out at the Dec. 19 commission meeting.
“I am deeply disturbed by the stance that the Knox County Sheriff’s Office has taken,” Lundy wrote in a public letter. “The accusations were most likely a miscommunication. … Now we are dealing with a bigger problem.”
“This situation with the young lady and law enforcement could have been handled differently,” she said, adding, “We most come together to choose liberation and justice for all.”
Lundy said she felt compelled to speak out because she saw people publicly chastising a 15-year-old without hearing her explanation of what happened and how the officers handled the interaction. The teen says she asked a co-worker to serve the officers because it was the end of her shift.
Lundy said she's asking for answers about Glenn's qualifications and whether she acted in accordance with the agency's social media policies.
Lundy also is exploring the legalities of creating an advisory review board, noting that many of her constituents are surprised the county does not have one in place. Knoxville has a community panel that reviews Knoxville Police Department discipline cases.
"I'm not not trying to start a war," she said. "I really want to bring the community together. We can't continue to be divided. I have to operate on a level of love and forgiveness. Mature leaders listen, learn and lead with love."
What are the social media ethical boundaries for law enforcement?
The teen at the center of the controversy is the sister of Anthony Thompson Jr., whose death at the hands of Knoxville police officers last year drew widespread condemnation. Her mother, Chanada Thompson, told Knox News her daughter has been brutally bullied online since the Nov. 21 incident, at a time when the family is trying to pick up the pieces.
After the interaction at the deli, the sheriff's office took to Facebook to defend the officers, naming the deli and saying a cashier refused to take their order.
Navigating the ethics of social media as a law enforcement agency can be difficult, said Judy Pal, a nationally renowned instructor for the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association who has conducted image and media training for thousands of law enforcement professionals over two decades.
“One thing that is great about social media is that it allows police agencies to frame their own narrative, which is important in some cases, to correct the record, to correct misinformation,” Pal said. “You can correct the record when it’s a factual error. That’s when you take to social media.”
But sometimes police can get too wrapped up in wanting to protect their image, she said.
“I understand the emotion,” Pal said. “You need to be professional. … You have to be very careful with what you post.”
Pal noted that even if a law enforcement staff member is posting on a personal page, people in the community know who they are.
“The best practice generally is, you shouldn’t be speaking for the organization in your personal posts,” she said. “The challenge is always this. If you’re commenting (on a situation) and don’t have all the facts, you can get in trouble.”
What is the Knox County Sheriff's Office social media policy?
There is little consistency on social media policies when it comes to law enforcement agencies.
“A lot of policies will refer back to the professional standards of the department,” Pal said. “Nothing to bring discredit to the agency. Maintaining the ethics of the agency.”
But, Pal noted, there’s no “bright line” guiding whether a post is acceptable. That decision will depend on the agency’s leader, she added.
The Knox County Sheriff's Office four-page social media policy bans posts on its own pages that contain profanity or content that is political, sexual, discriminatory or illegal. It bans information that would compromise the safety or security of the public.
Rather than restrict posts on personal pages, the sheriff's office policy says employees shall not characterize themselves as representing the agency unless they do so at a supervisor's direction. The policy also says that if an employee self-identifies as a member of the sheriff's office, they must "at a minimum" include a disclaimer on their page that makes it clear that the opinions expressed are solely those of the employee.
Glenn's post, which she has since deleted, included none of that. She often shares Knox County Sheriff's Office posts and refers to "our" agency and "our" officers. In the post in question, she referred to "three of our officers" with no disclaimer.
The Knoxville Police Department has its own social media policy, a seven-page document that spells out departmental use of social media, prohibited activity and the approval process for social media posts.
It also spells out the potential issues employees should take into consideration when posting on personal pages.
The policy says employees have a right to have personal web pages or sites, and are free to express themselves as private citizens on social media sites, but stresses that posts cannot damage public perception of the department.
"When reference is made to or about the department, a review of that reference is needed to ensure that such reference does not compromise the department’s integrity and, thus, undercut the public confidence in this agency or this profession," the policy states.
Personal posts can be considered protected free speech
The ethical boundaries grow more complicated on personal accounts. Law enforcement agencies have to balance their policies with individual rights to free speech.
"It is crucial that law enforcement agencies develop policies and procedures that outline an employee’s personal use of social media," reads a recommendation from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "These policies should take into account the employee’s individual rights and freedoms to post content while balancing the potential negative impact some content may have on the individual’s employment and the agency as a whole.."
There's a fine line agencies have to negotiate when it comes to First Amendment rights, Pal said.
"More and more employees are choosing to speak out, and there is a gray zone when it comes to government employees," she said.
"Every county employee has First Amendment rights," said attorney Mark Weaver, an expert in media law with deep knowledge of the ethical issues surrounding social media. "But does (that free speech) affect the community's perception of the agency?"
Liz Kellar is a public safety reporter for Knox News. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Knox County commissioner 'deeply disturbed' by sheriff's Facebook post