Chief Unveils New Rules for What Seattle Officers Can Say on Social Media

This afternoon, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole published a new social media policy—under development since last fall—on the department’s website. She says the policy was developed with the City Attorney’s Office, the department’s federal monitoring team, and the two police unions—SPOG and SPMA. “It’s unfortunate that behavior on social media by a few has contributed to the erosion of our collective efforts,” O’Toole comments.

She is referring, presumably, to Officers Cynthia Whitlatch, Christopher Hall, and Sam Byrd. (I brought to light troubling comments they made on Facebook and Twitter, and since then they’ve all been investigated by the department.)

The most important passage of the new policy is below. Had it gone into effect last year, the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which recommends officer discipline, might have been able to conclude in August that Whitlatch’s so-called “Ferguson screed” constituted a policy violation rather than mere cause for concern—which could have led to the OPA recommending something more than a chat with her supervisor. Pierce Murphy, the OPA director, told me Whitlatch’s comments did not violate any policy at the time. So—progress!

Employees may express themselves as private citizens on social media sites as long as employees do not:

• Make, share, or comment in support of any posting that includes harassment, threats of violence, or similar inappropriate conduct

• Make, share, or comment in support of any posting that ridicules, maligns, disparages, expresses bias, negative connotations, or disrespect toward any race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other protected class of individuals

• Make, share, or comment in support of any posting that suggests that Department personnel are engaged in behavior reasonably considered to be unlawful or reckless toward public safety

• Otherwise violate any law or SPD policy