• Can police agencies restrict officers' freedom of speech on social media?

    By: Amy Clancy


    KIRO 7 was the first to break the news that the Seattle Police Chief is creating a new social media policy for her entire department in the wake of comments made online by an officer.

    The officer, Cynthia Whitlatch, has been relieved of duty. Whitlatch is on paid leave at home, without her badge or gun, while the investigation into her comments and what the SPD is going to do about them continues.
    KIRO 7 has learned another local law enforcement officer is currently being investigated for posting inappropriate comments online.

    Speaking by phone while onvacation, King County Sheriff John Urquhart said that one of his deputies is being investigated by the department’s Internal Investigations Unit for posting comments that “impugned the reputation of the King County Sheriff’s Office.”  

    Urquhart wouldn’t identify the deputy, or the nature of the posts, but said police agencies nationwide are currently wrestling with the difficult balance social media presents of protecting officers’ freedom of speech while also protecting the reputation of their departments.

    The King County Sheriff’s Office already has a social media policy detailed in its General Orders Manual. To see the social media policy of the King County Sheriff’s Office, click here (see page 754).          

    "While we still have First Amendment rights, we need to be cognizant that we’re representing the agency, whether on duty or off,” King County Sheriff’s spokesperson Sgt. D.B. Gates told KIRO 7 on Thursday.

    The Seattle Police Department just launched its plan to create a new social policy in the wake of community concerns about Whitlatch’s racially-charged Facebook posts that ultimately lead to her being relieved of duty.

    “There’s no place for racial bias in policing,” Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole told KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon on Tuesday.  

    While O’Toole works on how her officers will ultimately be able to use social media, KIRO 7 learned the officers’ union backs up the chief’s efforts.

    "I support a new policy for clarity so that my members know exactly what they’re talking about,” Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Ron Smith said.

    Smith and Gates both said it’s important for agencies to make social media policies a priority, not only because of potential harm to a department’s reputation, but because biased comments could harm an investigation in court.  

    “We need to be neutral,” Gates told KIRO 7. “We need not to take a stand. That’s not our place in public, and whether a prosecuting attorney or a defense attorney could get a hold of that, use it against you when you’re testifying in a case, yeah, it could impact a case that we’re involved in.”

    Urquhart used Whitlatch as an example.

    “Because of the Facebook posts she made, every time she arrests an African-American in the future, that post will come up,” Urquhart said.

    KIRO 7 emailed the Seattle Police Department’s Public Information Office to get a timeline for when O’Toole’s new policy will be in place, but received no response.           

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