Is Cyberbullying the Newest Form of Police Brutality?

Police departments across the country are calling keyboard warriors into action to help them solve crimes…but at what cost?

In a survey of 539 police departments in the U.S., 76% of departments said that they used their social media accounts to solicit tips on crimes. Departments post “arrested” photos to celebrate arrests, surveillance footage for suspect identification, and some even post themed wanted posters, like the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.

The process for using social media as an investigative tool is dangerously simple and the consequences can be brutal. A detective thinks posting on social media might help an investigation, so the department posts a video or picture asking for information. The community, armed with full names, addresses, and other personal information, responds with some tips and a lot of judgmental, threatening, and bigoted comments. Most police departments have no policy for removing posts after information has been gathered or cases are closed, even if the highlighted person is found to be innocent. A majority of people who are arrested are not even convicted of a crime.

Law enforcement’s use of social media in this way threatens the presumption of innocence, creates a culture of public humiliation, and often results in a comment section of bigoted and threatening comments.

On February 26, 2020, the Manhattan Beach Police Department posted a mugshot of Matthew Jacques on their Facebook and Instagram pages for their “Wanted Wednesday” social media series. The pages have 4,500 and 13,600, mostly local, followers, respectively. The post equated Matthew to a fugitive and commenters responded publicly with information about where he worked. Matthew tried to call off work out of fear of a citizen’s arrest. The fear turned out to be warranted when two strangers came to find him at his workplace. Matthew eventually lost his job because he was too afraid to return to work.

You may be thinking this is not a big deal. This guy was probably wanted for something really bad and the police needed help. After all, the post said the police had a warrant. Think again.

There was no active warrant for Matthew at the time, his only (already resolved) warrant came from taking too long to schedule remedial classes for a 2017 DUI. Matthew was publicly humiliated by the local police department. The department even refused to remove the social media posts after being notified of the truth. The result?

Matthew filed a complaint against the department for defamation (as well as libel per se and false light invasion of privacy). Typically, defamation requires the plaintiff to show:

1) a false statement purporting to be fact; 2) publication or communication of that statement to a third person; 3) fault amounting to at least negligence; and 4) damages, or some harm caused to the person or entity who is the subject of the statement.

Here, the department made a false statement – that there was a warrant. They published it on their social media, satisfying the second element. They did not check readily available public records that showed Matthew did not have a warrant. Finally, Matthew lived in fear and lost his job. Clearly, he was harmed.

The police department claimed their postings were protected by the California Constitution, governmental immunity, and the 1st Amendment. Fortunately, the court denied the department’s anti-SLAPP motion. Over a year after postings, the department took down the posting and settled the lawsuit with Matthew.

Some may think that Matthew’s case is an anomaly and that, usually, the negative attention is warranted and perhaps even socially beneficial because it further de-incentivizes criminal activity via humiliation and social stigma. However, most arrests don’t result in convictions, many of the police’s cyberbullying victims are likely innocent. Even if they are guilty, leaving these posts up can increase the barrier to societal re-entry, which can increase recidivism rates. A negative digital record can make finding jobs and housing more difficult. Many commenters assume the highlighted individual’s guilt and take to their keyboards to shame them.

Here’s one example of a post and comment section from the Toledo Police Department Facebook page:

Unless departments change their social media use policies, they will continue to face defamation lawsuits and continue to further the degradation of the presumption of innocence.

Police departments should discontinue the use of social media in the humiliating ways described above. At the very least, they should consider using this tactic only for violent, felonious crimes. Some departments have already changed their policies.

The San Francisco Police Department has stopped posting mugshots for criminal suspects on social media. According to Criminal Defense Attorney Mark Reichel, “The decision was made in consultation with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office who argued that the practice of posting mugshots online had the potential to taint criminal trials and follow accused individuals long after any debt to society is paid.” For a discussion of some of the issues social media presents to maintaining a fair trial, see Social Media, Venue and the Right to a Fair Trial.

Do you think police departments should reconsider their social media policies?

Author: Gabriella Mickel

Gabriella Mickel is a rising 2L at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law. She has a B.S. in Theoretical Math and a B.A. in History. Gabriella currently serves as the President of the Environmental Law Society.

11 thoughts on “Is Cyberbullying the Newest Form of Police Brutality?”

  1. The use of social media by police for these reasons is disgusting. The systemic racism they support and class warfare they wage on the people has a 21st century edge. Hopefully there is a change in policy to actually help people, not demonize them for being hungry.

  2. Police should absolutely rethink their social media policies. That is so incredibly humiliating for people and the pile on of the entire internet is unnecessary. I agree that the record of it posted on social media will leave a stain on the persons internet record that will damage their way of life forever, especially those who are exonerated. Great article. Very well written.

  3. Excellent article! Everyone is entitled to privacy and overstepping that is a serious offense. Laws and regulations should be put in place to protect people put on social media by our legal system.

  4. Imagine being so unprofessional that you employ high school level tactics of public humiliation and degradation in order to attempt to deter crime. Infantile.

  5. It’s nice to be open and to try new things-but along with that comes the responsibility to evaluate the results and to examine the consequences-especially those that are surprising and unpredictable. Clearly, this tactic is creating more harm than good. Throughout history-shame and humiliation have proven effective in achieving the exact opposite of the stated intent. Its a “shame” that some police departments have devolved into bullying. It’s time we looked at programs that do work to reduce crime and recidivism. If we pride ourselves in being a free people – that includes freedom from the authoritarian abuses we left behind when we founded this county. (*ideally-not in actual practice.)

  6. How completely unprofessional of the police to publically shame its citizens. Posting personal information about “criminals” encourages their social media followers to engage not only in bullying, but in behavior that could easily become criminal itself is in fact quite difficult to comprehend. As a taxpayer whose hard earned money funds the local and state police departments, I’m appalled! This must stop immediately! Thanks for shining a light on this important topic.

  7. Interesting that commenters use a presumption of guilt to justify body-shaming that would otherwise be anti-social. A presumption of innocence does not seem to exist in the court of public opinion.

  8. Interesting and insightful article! What seems like harmless and helpful tactics may actually cause more harm than good. Authorities should proceed with heightened caution when considering turning to social media platforms for investigative matters.

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