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Ethical considerations with the use of technology by law enforcement

This is the first in a series of articles that will focus upon law enforcement personnel’s use of technology and the implications it has for both the employees and their agencies.  The focus of these articles is on potential employee misconduct and its prevention through education and training.

Over the last several years, a tremendous emphasis has been placed upon policy development relating to law enforcement employees’ use of technology particularly social media.  Policy development is critical for agencies to ensure that they provide employees with clear guidelines while also ensuring their ability to run efficiently. Many agencies have or are currently developing social media policies as well as other technology policies.  These policies will need to be regularly modified and adapted as the courts provide legal direction and new technology emerges.

Developing a clear and legally defensible departmental policy performs two primary functions.  The first is to clearly outline to employees the rules and regulations.  The secondary function of a departmental policy is to address employee misconduct.  Historically the vast majority of law enforcement employees will conform to departmental policies.  However when policies are unclear, changed without proper notice, and involve employees off duty conduct, there is a greater likelihood that they will either intentionally or unknowingly violate a policy.

Policies that involve technology and social media are often times very technical, need regular revision and can regulate an employees conduct off duty.  For these reasons, there is a very real need for meaningful training on the ethical use of technology, applicable policies and the consequences to the employees and agencies with inappropriate use of technology.

As trainers will attest, law enforcement employees want to understand the benefit and consequences from the training they receive.  By discussing the technology being used both on and off duty, explaining potential ethical pitfalls and the scope of departmental policies, agencies can be preventive rather than reactive when dealing with employee’s use of technology.

As a training manager I understand the challenges of law enforcement training.  Law enforcement agencies face shrinking training budgets, cuts in training staff, perishable skills training mandates, state mandates and the need to provide training in a variety of skill sets.

Faced with these obstacles, it is important to develop and implement training in a variety of formats that will ensure the greatest retention and impact upon employees.  Training formats, allotted time and the method in which it is delivered varies greatly from agency to agency.  We have all been to those courses that provide a one size fits all mandated training format.   Students are provided with an 8-hour training plan take back to their agencies and implement.   While great in theory if this isn’t realistic within the constraints of the individual agency the end result is often that no training is provided.

The training should be developed to meet the needs of the individual agency.  Time frames allocated for training can vary from one to eight hours.  Formats can include roll call modules, weekly training cycles, annual officer training, etc.

The focus should be on quality training that will emphasize the new and wide reaching effects of technology and social media usage for officers in both their personal and professional lives.  I look forward to your thoughts in the coming months as we discuss a variety of topics related to law enforcement employees’ ethical use of technology.

Sgt Nathan Steele, West Sacramento Police

Nathan Steele is a Sergeant with the West Sacramento Police Department where he has worked for the last 16 years.  As one of his current duties he created and runs the Police Departments Social Media program.  In addition he is an Adjunct Professor for the Los Rios Community College District teaching courses in the Criminal Justice Division.  Nathan has 14 years of experience as a Law Enforcement Trainer in a variety of fields.  Nathan holds both a Bachelors and Masters Degree from CSU Sacramento and is a graduate of the California POST Master Instructor Program.  Nathan has created a first of its kind 1 day and 3 day California POST certified courses on the Ethical Use of Technology by Law Enforcement.  Nathan travels throughout the State of California providing training to officers and their agencies to educate, prevent and mitigate the damage caused by inappropriate use of technology by law enforcement employees.

Nathan can be reached at or 916-529-9498





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