317 – Web Presence/Social Media
The advent of digital media sites has created an environment of greater connection among people, businesses, and organizations. Many law enforcement agencies utilize digital media sites for the purpose of public networking, such as providing the public with current information on crime trends, updates on law-enforcement-related events, and addressing safety awareness. Digital media sites have also become important tools in the hands of criminals to enhance their criminal activity. To remain consistent with the standards of the 21st century, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) must successfully and lawfully harness the power and value of digital media sites while ensuring that individuals’ and groups’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties are protected.
The HCSO also recognizes the role that digital media plays in the personal lives of its personnel and the bearing it may have on their official capacity. Professionalism, ethics, and integrity are of paramount importance to the HCSO. To achieve and maintain the public’s highest level of respect, we must place reasonable restrictions on the conduct of our employees and our appearances in person and in print and hold all personnel to a greater standard of conduct, whether on or off duty.
This policy is meant to direct and define the use of digital media in the advancement of HCSO goals. Digital media provides a new and potentially valuable means of assisting the HCSO and its personnel in community outreach, problem solving, investigation, crime prevention, and related objectives. This policy identifies potential uses that may be explored or expanded upon as deemed lawful and reasonable by administrative and supervisory personnel. As such, this policy provides information of a precautionary nature and prohibitions on the use of digital media by HCSO personnel. This policy is meant to provide guidance to HCSO personnel to ensure that digital media resources are being utilized in a lawful and appropriate manner that upholds the HCSO’s mission in addition to federal, state, and local laws.
All personnel, both sworn and professional, shall be held accountable for their utterances, writings, conduct, and visual representations, including electronic and web-based communications. Such communications, when they can be identified with a HCSO employee, must never conflict with our core values, our mission, or our law enforcement code of ethics.
The HCSO reserves and intends to exercise the right to review, audit, intercept, access, and disclose all messages created, received, or sent on a HCSO Information Technology resource. See HCSO Department Policy #309 – Electronic Media Technology Usage, subsection I (D). No HCSO employee has a right to privacy in information created, received, or sent on a HCSO Information Technology resource.
An employee’s actions must never bring the HCSO into disrepute, nor should conduct be detrimental to the HCSO’s efficient operation. The developments in electronic technology as described within this policy are an invaluable resource to assist the HCSO in performing its mission to serve the citizens of Harris County, Texas.
Personnel who, through their use of digital media, cause undue embarrassment or damage the reputation of, or erode the public’s confidence in, the HCSO shall be deemed to have violated this policy and shall be subject to counseling and / or discipline.
Anonymous: Expression or communication of thoughts or opinions from an unknown source; not named and made or done by someone unknown, in writing, by expressive conduct, symbolism, photographs, videotape, or related forms of communication.
Blog: A self-published diary of commentary on a particular topic that may allow visitors to post responses, reactions, or comments. The term is short for “web log.”
Digital Media: Text, audio, video, graphics, or other content that is created, edited, stored, or transmitted over the Internet.
Online Alias: An online identity encompassing identifiers, such as name and date of birth, differing from the employee’s actual identifiers that uses a non-governmental Internet protocol address. Online aliases may be used to monitor activity on websites or to engage in authorized online undercover activity.
Online Undercover Activity: The utilization of an online alias to engage in interactions with a person via digital media sites that may or may not be in the public domain (e.g., “friending” a person on Facebook).
Page: The specific portion of a website where content is displayed and managed by a person or persons with administrative rights.
Phases of Digital Media within a Criminal Investigation:
- Apparent or Overt Phase: The HCSO employee “googles” someone, searches Facebook, etc. His or her identity as a HCSO employee is apparent.
- Discrete Phase: The HCSO employee searches for and retains public-access pictures, retains profile status updates, etc., and his or her identity as a HCSO employee may not be apparent.
- Covert Phase: The HCSO employee will “friend,” follow, set up user accounts, and obtains lawful intercepts. His or her identity as a HCSO employee is hidden.
Post: Content a person shares on a digital media site or the act of publishing content on a site.
Profile: Information that a user provides about him- or herself on a website.
Public Domain: Any Internet resource that is open and available to anyone.
Public Information Act: As of September 1, 2013, the Texas Public Information Act was amended to include e-mails, text messages, instant messages, and Internet postings made by a public employee concerning public business. For HCSO employees, this means that all such communication made on employees’ personal devices that concerns county business will now be subject to disclosure pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act.
Public Square: The new public square includes, but is not limited to, all electronic media and social media platforms such as the World Wide Web, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, blogs, etc.
Social Media: A category of Internet-based resources that integrates user-generated content and user participation. This includes, but is not limited to: social networking sites (Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, etc.), micro-blogging sites (Twitter, Nixle, etc.), photo and video sharing sites (YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, etc.), wikis (Wikipedia), blogs, and news sites.
Social Networks: Online platforms where users can create profiles, share information, and socialize with others using a range of technologies.
Speech: Expression or communication of thoughts or opinions in spoken words, in writing, by expressive conduct, symbolism, photographs, videotape, or related forms of communication.
Texting: Written communication on a personal or HCSO-supplied electronic mobile device.
Valid Law Enforcement Purpose: A purpose for information or intelligence gathering development, or collection, use, retention, or sharing that advances the authorized functions and activities of a law enforcement agency which may include crime prevention, ensuring public safety, promoting officer safety, and homeland and national security, while adhering to law and agency policy designed to protect the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of Americans.
Web 2.0: The second generation of the World Wide Web focused on shareable, user-generated content rather than static web pages.
Web Presence: A location on the World Wide Web where a person, business, or some other entity is represented.
Wiki: Web pages that can be edited collaboratively online.
Sanctioned Social Media Use
The HCSO endorses the secure use of social media to enhance communication, collaboration, information exchange, streamline processes, and foster productivity.
The HCSO endorses the use of social media for pre-employment background investigations, crime analysis, situational assessments, criminal intelligence development, criminal investigations, internal affairs, marketing, recruitment, and community engagement.
There shall be a department-sanctioned presence when communicating with the public.
Each HCSO social media page shall include an introductory statement that clearly specifies the purpose and scope of the agency’s presence on the website.
The pages should link to the HCSO’s official website.
Social media pages shall be designed to enhance public communications.
All HCSO social media sites or pages shall be approved and administrated by the HCSO digital media manager.
Social media pages shall clearly indicate they are maintained by the HCSO and shall have the HCSO contact information prominently displayed.
Social media content shall adhere to applicable laws, regulations, and policies, including all information technology and records management statutes and policies.
Content is subject to public records law. Relevant records retention schedules apply to social media content.
Content must be managed, stored, and retrieved to comply with open records laws and electronic discovery laws and policies.
Social media pages shall state and, as such, shall be made clear to any reader of a HCSO-sponsored social media page that the opinions or views reflected on the page are the opinions or views of the readers and do not reflect the official opinions or views of the HCSO.
Pages shall clearly indicate that posted comments will be monitored and that the HCSO reserves the right to remove obscenities, off-topic comments, comments that are deemed inappropriate, and any personal attacks.
Pages shall clearly indicate that any content posted or submitted for posting is subject to public disclosure.
Social media pages shall give clear notice that once content is submitted to the HCSO sites, the content becomes HCSO property.
Personnel representing this agency via social media outlets shall adhere to the following:
- Shall conduct themselves at all times as HCSO representatives and adhere to all HCSO standards of conduct and observe conventionally-accepted protocols and proper decorum;
- Shall identify themselves as a HCSO member;
- Shall not make statements about the guilt or innocence of any suspect or arrestee or comments concerning pending prosecutions, nor post, transmit, or otherwise disseminate confidential information, including photographs or videos, related to HCSO training, activities, or work-related assignments without express written permission; and
- Shall not conduct political activities or private business.
The use of county computers by HCSO personnel to access social media is prohibited unless a valid law enforcement purpose exists.
The usage of an electronic mobile device to read or enter data via digital media, e-mail, or text applications while operating a motor vehicle is prohibited. This applies to operating a county-owned vehicle or any vehicle while on duty. Cease the operation of the motor vehicle when engaging in communication via texting (reading or entering data), e-mail (reading or entering data) or accessing a digital media site (reading or entering data).
HCSO personnel are cautioned not to conduct county business on any personally-owned electronic devices unless it is done through the county e-mail system. All county business is subject to open records inspections and production whether conducted on county or personal devices. (Refer to the “Public Information Act” definition).
Employees shall observe and abide by all copyright, trademark, and service mark restrictions in posting materials to digital media.
Criminal Investigations that include any Internet-based function including, but not limited to, social media platforms shall be conducted as all other criminal investigations are conducted and documented within the HCSO. The level of authorization necessary to conduct such an investigation is dependent upon the phase of such investigation:
- Apparent or Overt Phase requires supervisor authorization
- Discrete Phase requires lieutenant- or captain-level authorization
- Covert Phase requires major or higher authorization
Social media is a valuable criminal investigative tool when seeking evidence or information pertaining to:
- Missing persons,
- Wanted persons,
- Gang participation,
- Crimes perpetrated online (e.g., cyber bullying, cyber stalking),
- Photos or videos of a crime posted by a participant or observer,
- Character evidence or evidence that tends to show a propensity for a person to commit certain types of acts, and
- Evidence of extraneous offenses or extraneous bad conduct.
NOTE: All information gathered through an Internet-based criminal investigation is secured and stored as all other evidence and documented within an incident report. Harris County retention policies shall be followed. When information is inadvertently obtained through such investigations that are NOT authorized as lawful criminal investigations, such materials shall NOT be retained, and a supervisor shall be immediately notified and the event documented in an incident report.
Potential Social Media Uses
Social media can be used for community outreach and engagement by the HCSO for:
- Providing crime prevention tips,
- Offering online reporting opportunities,
- Sharing crime maps and data,
- Soliciting tips about unsolved crimes (e.g., Crime stoppers, text-a-tip), and
- Public safety education.
Social media can be used by the HCSO to provide real-time notifications related to:
- Road closures,
- Special events,
- Weather emergencies,
- Missing or endangered persons, and
- Breaking events (e.g., mass shooting, school lockdown, etc.).
Employees on duty shall only utilize social media to seek or retain information deemed useful for an identified, lawful HCSO purpose, such as information:
- Based upon a criminal predicate or threat to public safety;
- Based upon reasonable suspicion that an identifiable person, regardless of citizenship or U.S. residency status, or organization has committed an identifiable criminal offense or is involved in or is planning criminal conduct or activity that presents a threat to any person, the community, or to the nation, and the information is relevant to the criminal conduct or activity (criminal intelligence information);
- That is relevant to the criminal investigation and prosecution of suspected criminal incidents; the resulting justice system response; the enforcement of sanctions, orders, or sentences; or the prevention or crime;
- That is useful in crime analysis or situational assessment reports for the administration of criminal justice and public safety; or
- That is relevant to pre-employment background investigations.
NOTE: Unauthorized use of social media while on the job is prohibited and subject to counseling and / or discipline.
Persons seeking employment and volunteer positions use the Internet to search for opportunities, and social media can be a valuable recruitment mechanism.
When conducting background investigations of potential candidates for employment, the HCSO has an obligation to include Internet-based content.
Searches shall be conducted by authorized personnel. Information pertaining to protected classes shall be filtered out prior to sharing any information found online with decision makers.
Persons authorized to search Internet-based content shall be deemed as holding a sensitive position.
Search methods shall not involve techniques that are a violation of existing law or HCSO policy.
Vetting techniques shall be applied uniformly to all candidates.
Every effort shall be made to validate Internet-based information considered during the hiring process.
Personal Web Presence
Precautions and Prohibitions
HCSO personnel are free to express themselves as private citizens on digital media sites. When an otherwise private citizen identifies him- or herself as a HCSO employee, he or she must be aware that his or her conduct may affect the agency. HCSO employees have agreed to follow and abide by the agency’s core values, and employees posting to digital media sites should promote the HCSO core values.
HCSO personnel shall assume that their speech and related activity on digital media sites will reflect upon their bureau and the agency. To achieve and maintain the public’s highest level of respect, personnel must place reasonable restrictions on their digital media conduct and hold to these standards of conduct whether on or off duty.
HCSO personnel should be aware that their online activity is easily discoverable, whether they intend it to be or not. As such, the content of websites may be obtained for use in criminal trials, civil proceedings, and departmental investigations.
HCSO personnel have the potential to be called as witnesses in court proceedings related to their employment as HCSO members. Credibility and character are subject to challenge and potential impeachment based upon the nature of postings on personal web pages, websites, other social networking sites from any time (past or present), and the persons with whom the employee networks.
Any information created, transmitted, downloaded, exchanged, or discussed in a public online forum, if done on HCSO equipment, may be accessed by the HCSO at any time without prior notice.
As public employees, HCSO personnel are cautioned that speech on or off duty that owes its existence to the employee’s professional duties and responsibilities may not be protected speech under the First Amendment. Bureau personnel shall assume that their speech and related activity on digital media sites when identified as coming from a HCSO employee will reflect upon their bureau and on the agency.
HCSO personnel shall not post, transmit, or otherwise disseminate any confidential information to which they have gained access as a result of their employment without written permission from the Sheriff or his or her designee.
For safety and security reasons, HCSO personnel are cautioned not to disclose their employment with the HCSO.
For safety and security reasons, HCSO personnel shall not post information pertaining to any other HCSO member that would disclose the member’s employment with the HCSO unless that person has already been disclosed to the public as a HCSO employee intentionally by the HCSO, or the posting employee has received permission from the other employee, and it does not adversely affect an ongoing HCSO operation.
HCSO personnel are prohibited from posting the following items without express permission from their chief:
- Any display of HCSO logos, badges, uniforms, marked vehicles, other departmental property, or on-duty personnel, including incident scenes or similar identifying items.
- Personal photographs or similar means of personal recognition that may cause the person to be identified as a HCSO employee unless that person has already been disclosed to the public as a HCSO employee intentionally by the HCSO.
- Deputies who are, or who may reasonably be, expected to work in undercover operations shall not post any form of visual or personal identification, nor shall any other employee post such visual or personal identification of that employee.
When using digital media, HCSO personnel shall be mindful of their speech, as it becomes a part of the World Wide Web electronic domain. In particular, identified HCSO personnel are prohibited from the following (this prohibition applies to any employee who participates in these forbidden actions directly or anonymously):
- Speech containing obscene or sexually explicit language, images, or acts and statements or other forms of speech that ridicule, malign, disparage, or otherwise express bias against any race, any religion, or any protected class of persons; and
- Speech involving themselves or other HCSO personnel reflecting behavior that would reasonably be considered a violation of the Texas Penal Code or HCSO policies.
Engaging in prohibited speech noted herein may provide grounds for undermining or impeaching a deputy’s testimony in criminal proceedings.
HCSO personnel shall be aware that they may be subject to civil litigation for:
- Recklessly publishing or posting false information that harms the reputation of another person, group, or organization (defamation);
- Publishing or posting private facts and personal information about someone without that person’s permission and that has not been previously revealed to the public, is not of public concern, and would be offensive to a reasonable person;
- Using someone else’s name, likeness, or other personal attributes without that person’s permission for an exploitative purpose; or
- Publishing the creative work of another, trademarks, or certain confidential business information without the permission of the owner.
HCSO personnel should be aware that privacy settings on social media sites are constantly in flux, and they should never assume that personal information posted on such sites is protected.
Any information created, transmitted, downloaded, exchanged, or discussed in a public online forum may be accessed by the HCSO at any time without prior notice.
Any employee becoming aware of or having knowledge of a post, websites, or web page in violation of this policy’s provision shall notify his or her supervisor immediately for follow-up action.
The Internet is a valuable source of information, and it should be utilized for the advancement of fulfilling required job tasks with the HCSO. Likewise, any non-work-related use of the Internet while on duty is prohibited.
Fraternization via social media is prohibited when it violates HCSO Department Policy #303 – Conduct Prohibited.
Nothing in this policy prevents employees from speaking out as citizens on matters of public concern, including the disclosure of criminal offenses.
If an employee feels that he or she has a special circumstance that he or she believes should authorize his or her violation of this policy, the employee shall notify his or her bureau commander or division director. For further direction, and if not satisfied, the employee may bring the issue directly to the Sheriff for his or her consideration.
Compensation received from or through the use of digital media sites will be considered Extra Employment and subjected to the guidelines and restrictions set forth in HCSO Department Policy #244 – Extra Employment.
This policy has been revised on the below listed dates:
July 16, 2014 December 22, 2020
September 19, 2014
April 7, 2015
June 26, 2015