Take That Trash Off My Wall!

Published in The Crime Report, Center on Media Crime and Justice
By K. Daniel Glover

David Oliver reached his social media breaking point last month.

As chief of the Brimfield, Ohio police department, Oliver is used to vulgar tirades against the police, especially from criminals and the company they keep. But he won’t tolerate such nastiness on the department’s Facebook page.

Hosting the page hasn’t presented many problems for Oliver in the year since it has been online. The department has deleted only three posts and banned four users. But two of the department’s posts on Jan. 23, one of them being a picture from a methamphetamine lab, triggered a flurry of foul language and personal attacks against officers.

Oliver deleted the offending content and then laid down the social media law.

“This is a police department [Facebook] page,” he wrote. “I am the chief here, which means I take responsibility for the entire content. … If you get offended because a ‘friend’ gets arrested, tough luck. Get new friends. Whatever you do, it will not involve bashing officers, me or the community on this page. It will not involve incoherent swearing.”

Oliver’s post earned nearly 300 “likes” and sparked 70 comments, far more engagement than usual on the page.

Most people cheered him for taking a hard line. But the status update also revealed a key concern facing police departments across America as they get more social: how to balance the community benefits of public interaction with the risks of creating an open, public forum.

“That’s the biggest challenge that most of us face,” said Sgt. Steve Hauck, who administers the social media channels for Utica, N.Y., police department. “There’s a fine line between free speech and vulgarity and what’s offensive. It’s always a judgment thing.”
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