Sharing photos and posts about the scene of the March 7, 2014, crash that landed a silver car in a tree southeast of the Capitol got a few Capitol Police officers into trouble with the department.
Disciplinary action taken against one officer who posted "stupid stuff" got employees curious about what the agency deemed unprofessional when it comes to social media use, according to Jim Konczos, chairman of the Capitol Police Labor Committee’s executive board. So the union asked department leadership to clarify. Nearly a year later, Chief Kim C. Dine has issued strict new guidelines on how employees can use Facebook, participate in online forums and comment on news sites, both on and off the clock. The mandate, effective on Feb. 19, has some officers combing through their accounts on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other sites to ensure they are in compliance. It has also sparked a grievance from the union, alleging the policy goes too far and infringes on officer's constitutional rights to free speech and free association.
Causing most of the angst is a provision in the four-page directive, obtained by CQ Roll Call, that states: "As public servants, any on or off duty speech made pursuant to official duties may not constitute protected speech under the First Amendment and therefore, may form the basis for disciplinary action."
The union also criticized "unduly burdensome provisions requiring the officers to report all negative comments about the Department that the officer sees on social media" in a March 6 letter sent to Dine from lawyers retained by the Capitol Police Labor Committee.
The formal complaint reveals further strain in the already tense relationship between department brass and the rank and file. Contract negotiations hit a brick wall earlier this year, and it appears agreement on the social media policy was one casualty of the stalemate.
Union leaders allege the department violated both law and contract when it rolled out the changes without addressing their complaints, including concerns about vague definitions of how officers can use government-issued computers and phones to access social media sites.
Capitol Police spokeswoman Lt. Kimberly Schneider said in a statement to CQ Roll Call the department "is hesitant to discuss internal grievances with the media and will handle this grievance according to the collective bargaining agreement.
"However, In order to enhance our administrative and operational procedures, the U.S. Capitol Police has included within our directive system a directive applicable to all USCP employees governing the use of electronic social media. This directive is a complement to existing USCP policies designed to ensure the integrity of the Department and our workplace. As social media plays an increasingly larger role in contemporary society, the USCP remains committed to best practices in law enforcement across the country.”
Konczos said both sides will meet on April 2 to discuss the directive, though he expects the issue will end up in costly arbitration.
Social media policies are a hot topic in departments nationwide. The New York Police Department is reviewing its rules regarding Wikipedia (a site noted in the Capitol Police directive) after two officers allegedly used department computers to alter entries on several high-profile police brutality cases.
While it is not the policy of Capitol Police to randomly search social media for evidence of policy or criminal violations, the directive states that when evidence of such misconduct is brought to the attention of the department, it may be used "as appropriate" in an internal investigation or forwarded to another law enforcement agency.
On Capitol Hill, social media policies often differ from office to office and some staffers have had to learn the hard way that there is no expectation of privacy online. Benjamin Cole, a spokesperson for Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., resigned after his racially charged Facebook comments surfaced, adding fuel to the firestorm of controversy surrounding his boss. Schock's flashy Instagram contributed to his downfall, with The Associated Press using his posts to correlate location data with private flights.
Earlier this year, staffer Elizabeth Lauten left her job as communications director for Tennessee Republican Stephen Fincher after her disparaging comments on first daughters Malia and Sasha Obama went viral.
Related: Capitol Police Chief’s Relationship With Union Hits New Low Capitol Police Chief’s Leadership Questioned Social Media Rules on Capitol Hill: What Not To Do Tough Lessons Learned for Staffer Resigning Over First Daughters Comments The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.