EDITORIAL: Social media use deserves scrutiny

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Mayor Michael Helfrich outlines the duties of Blanda Nace and defends his decision to hire Nace as chief opportunity development officer, Monday, June 24, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

A York City police officer is off the force a little more than a year after he was hired — a victim of his own words and deeds.

Police and city officials wouldn’t say why Officer Griffin Jackson resigned on Aug. 21, but the departure comes amid an ongoing examination of the former officer’s social media posts, some of which were, to put it mildly, troubling.

Jackson, a York resident, had already been removed from active duty while city officials reviewed some 2,000 social-media posts, some of which — including a sampling from his Facebook page — contained racially insensitive content.

Perhaps even more troubling, Jackson was hardly alone in publicly sharing such views.

Similar posts by other current and former members of the force surfaced on a website called the Plain View Project. Philadelphia-area attorneys created the site to share “public Facebook posts and comments made by current and former police officers” that they believe “could undermine public trust and confidence in our police.”

“Undermine public trust” is an understatement, given much of the content.

The attention generated by the Plain View Project’s disclosures led York City officials in June to warn police officers against posting offensive content online. And the police department itself conducted an internal investigation, which is ongoing.

Police officers themselves know only too well — or should know — that detrimental actions by any officer can erode the credibility of not only the force but the profession. Public trust is delicate commodity.

It is only recently, after a mid-2010s dip in public trust following a series of high-profile police shootings, that increasing numbers of Americans are again professing more trust in police officers. The last thing any local force, or individual officer, should want to do is reverse that trend.

That’s why York City Detective Jeremy Mayer, president of the White Rose Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police, is off base when he questions city officials for reviewing the social-media history of officers.

After all, the posts are public statements and, as York Mayor Michael Helfrich has correctly noted, they can be “a window into the consciousness and conscience” of the poster. Even if city officials were to turn a blind eye to abhorrent public declarations, the public would not.

Social media accounts are fair game for all public servants — and, indeed, have become integral parts of hiring practices in the private sector as well. Frankly, had city officials done their due diligence 14 months ago and conducted a cursory sweep of Jackson’s social-media history as part of their hiring process, this particular episode might have been avoided.

But neither York City officials, Detective Mayer nor the public should lose sight of the bigger picture. Written or shared content on social media amounts to a self-promoted display of one's views and opinions. And even one supremely offensive communication can have tumultuous results (Exhibit A: comedian Roseanne Barr).

So public servants must be just as mindful in sharing their views online as they would be in sharing them at a lecture hall — because that is, in essence, what they’re doing.

And the public shouldn’t be dissuaded from examining such content. Public statements deserve public scrutiny — and, in the case of this officer and a handful of others, sometimes public explanation and even a public response.