Even 'freebies' can be trouble, officers warned

Dan Bearden speaks to West Point police officers during an ethics seminar Thursday.
Staff Writer

Don't text or post on social media when mad or drinking alcohol. Be prepared to pay full price for everything from a cup of coffee to a full meal. And First Amendment protections don't apply in most cases to police or firefighters on social media or elsewhere.

Those and other common-sense tips were the focus of a four-hour ethics seminar for West Point police officers Thursday.

"The most common ethics lapses today are things officers do on social media. Next are things on the street, the way they talk to people. I think they sometimes forget where they came from and why they got into law enforcement. They forget we are no better than the public we serve," Dean Bearden, director of the North Mississippi Law Enforcement Training Center in Tupelo, said after Thursday's session.

Bearden spent the morning and afternoon reviewing social media issues, how they relate to the First Amendment and court rulings dealing with First Amendment rights and public employees, common failings among police officers, and protocol for such everyday things as accepting discounts and gratuities.

"Ethics is a behavioral issue and it is determined by accountability and that accountability and conduct determines public perception," Bearden said. "If officers can avoid accountability, if there is no discipline for bad behavior, it will get worse and worse and worse. It becomes a disease.

"You have to lay the hammer down the first time misconduct happens to insure good behavior from everyone else," the 27-year law enforcement veteran continued.

Even simple things like a cup of coffee must be handled seriously. If not, it can set a bad tone that grows into a serious perception problem.

"Everyone knows places that give officers discounts. But make sure you have the money to pay full price. Always offer to pay for it. Make them give the discount, don't ask for it, expect it, or demand it," he stated.

"We can't and shouldn't lower our standards and believe we are better. As soon as we do, we've got a problem."

The director spent extensive time reviewing social media examples where officers across the country have run afoul of their employers.

"We don't have the right to say what we want when we want. There are reasonable limitations. When you enter public service, you must accept limitations on speech and be held to a higher standard," he said, referring to language in a Supreme Court ruling.

"I will maintain an unsullied personal life as an example to all," he added, citing the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics which the West Point Police Department follows.

Police Chief Avery Cook said that code provides the enforcement ability he needs if social media violations come up.

And social media posts and comments have negative impacts in many ways besides just tarnishing the officer's reputation and department's image, Bearden said.

Lawyers have used officers' comments online to discredit them and their entire departments in both criminal and civil cases.

Likewise, almost every agency now checks social media sites when vetting potential employees.

"That's where they can find your attitudes, preferences, flaws. It's those kinds of things that will get us officers in trouble," he explained.

"And don't drunk post, don't text when you are mad or when you have been drinking. That's not good," he continued, citing one of the most common times officers, and even private citizens, get in trouble.

The city of West Point is in the process of adopting a social media policy for all employees similar to one used by Columbus, where several officers and firefighters have been disciplined for violations.

Thursday's training covered almost every officer in the West Point department and is part of an effort to make sure officers get an ethics review at least every two years, Cook said.