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Fire, police agencies have varying policies on social media, discounts

BY BRYNA ZUMER AND KAYLA BAWROSKI, bzumer@theaegis.com; kbawroski@theaegis.com

7:21 PM EDT, June 7, 2012

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Harford County's law enforcement agencies and fire departments generally don't limit their members from accepting discounts like the one offered to police and the military at the Sonic restaurant that got some Bel Air volunteer firefighters disciplined.

Local law enforcement agencies likewise have policies on employees using social media, as do the local fire companies for their volunteer members, though the policy varies from company to company, one official said.

The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, which recently suspended and reprimanded firefighters after they complained about not getting discounts at Sonic in Bel Air, allows its members to receive special offers, a spokesperson said.

Four Bel Air firefighters were disciplined over comments they made on Facebook, which included suggestions someone should set a Dumpster fire at the Bel Air Sonic restaurant, where one member claimed he was denied a discount available to police and the military, and then not respond to the fire call.

"There is no BAVFC policy regarding the accepting of discounts at any food or convenience stores," fire company spokesperson Rich Gardiner wrote in an e-mail. "The offers of discounts occur frequently to our members, in uniform and not in uniform. Some accept them, so[me] do not."

The Harford County Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, does not allow its members to accept discounts, nor does the Maryland State Police, and at least two of the three municipal police departments in Harford set some standards regarding acceptance of discounts or gratuities.

At least one national organization says police officers should not accept discounts, gifts, gratuities or any such perks.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has a clearly stated policy in the Abuse of Law Enforcement Powers or Position section of its Model Policy On Standards of Conduct:

"Officers shall not use their authority or position for financial gain, for obtaining or granting privileges or favors not otherwise available to them or others except as a private citizen, to avoid the consequences of illegal acts for themselves or for others, to barter, solicit, or accept any goods or services (to include, gratuities, gifts, discounts, rewards, loans, or fees) whether for the officer or for another."

It also states: "Officers shall report any unsolicited gifts, gratuities or other items of value that they receive and shall provide a full report of the circumstances of their receipt if directed."

Lt. Fred Budnick, spokesperson for the Aberdeen Police Department, said employees cannot solicit or accept gifts where such an offer could be construed as an effort to influence conduct as a police officer.

They cannot solicit a fee or reward, he said, and cannot provide any extra patrol services or treat a business differently because they offer gratuities, Budnick said.

Spokesperson Jeff Gilpin for the Havre de Grace Police Department said Thursday the department has two policies governing employees accepting gifts or gratuities.

One chapter in the policy, under abuse of position, states that employees are prohibited from using their position for personal or financial benefit or to obtain privileges not otherwise available, he said. 

Another section deals specifically with gifts, Gilpin explained. It is similar to the policy set for Aberdeen Police Department employees. Havre de Grace police employees are not permitted to solicit, seek or accept a gift or gratuity, including food or drink, from any individual or business in cases in which acceptance of the gift could be construed as an effort to influence conduct, he said. 

Although officers can accept discounts and offers from different restaurants, such as Sonic, Gilpin said, they can't expect it or demand it. 

The Bel Air Police Department did not respond to inquiries in time for this article.

The Sonic franchise in Bel Air, the first in Harford County, opened less than two months ago. The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company has a new substation under construction a short distance away, making the fire company and the drive-in restaurant future neighbors on Route 924.

Eddie Hopkins, the fire company's chief, said he personally visited the owner of Sonic Tuesday night to discuss what had happened. Earlier, Sonic manager Rick Joshi had said he was unaware of the Facebook posts or that any firefighters were unhappy about or had made threats regarding the business.

"I had met with him for half an hour and I was apologizing on behalf of the company and discussed the issue," Hopkins said Thursday. "He appeared to be OK with everything – I don't want to speak for him – and accepted the apology."

Social media policies

Fire and police agencies in Harford also have policies on social media use, which attempt to address the appropriateness of members being on Facebook or Twitter.

Gardiner said the Bel Air fire department's policy is established by the board of directors.

"The BAVFC social media policy designates the appropriate forms of approved social media and networking authorized by the BAVFC, as well as the disciplinary process for those instances which violate this policy," Gardiner wrote in an e- mail. "The BAVFC is bound to act according to and under order of the Board of Directors and/or designated legal counsel in regard to all forms of incident documentation and related permissions, especially in cases of probable, impending and previous legal action."

Hopkins explained: "The policy is really focused on getting people to be responsible when they post."

He said the policy recognizes that members have civil liberties and abilities to use social media, but that they must be used wisely.

Dave Williams, with the Fallston Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Company, said use of social media is part of the department's standard operating procedures.

"Our members are reminded that activity which is illegal or contrary to the policies of the FVFAC are just that - illegal and against policy whether conducted online or offline, and that appropriate sanctions can and will be enforced. Expressions of one's opinions should not violate policy or negatively effect operations of the FVFAC," Williams said.

"Members are reminded that they should be respectful to others. That opinions should be stated as such, and to be cautious with their online statements as the reader may interpret the post in a manner not intended. Officers of the FVFAC are particularly cautioned that their statements carry additional weight as they are seen as Officers of the Fire Service even when online and identified as such," he continued.

About Aberdeen police, Budnick said, employees can not post criticism of police departments, the city of Aberdeen or the state, and must use good judgment with social networking, including refraining from discriminatory, harassing or derogatory language. 

Gilpin, of the Havre de Grace department, said they are in the process of completing a written social media conduct policy but have already expressed the rules to officers. These include not posting anything online that represents Havre de Grace police and the business the police department conducts, he said.

Such activities are "strongly discouraged" he said, not only for officer safety but because in situations throughout the country, cases have been thrown out of court as a result of information posted online.

The Harford County Sheriff's Office is revising its social media policy to include more specifics and has been for months, according to Capt. Christopher Swain.

Under the existing policy, deputies are not allowed to appear on websites such as Facebook in uniform, displaying equipment or anything that would identify them as deputies. 

Maryland State Police employees are prohibited from criticizing or ridiculing the state police or any other state agency. They are urged to "exercise good judgment," according to a spokesperson, who cited a few examples, including not harassing people, not encouraging immoral behavior and not broadcasting business of the department.

"It looks like they are taking the right step," Harford County Executive David Craig said Thursday about how the fire company leadership has handled the situation.

Craig said Facebook has been an issue in a lot of areas, such as employer hiring and employee conduct, but he also said he wasn't concerned about needing to have more oversight over firefighters, et cetera, as far as this issue goes.

He also said others could also learn from the Bel Air fire company example, adding, "Everybody begins to learn a little bit [about how they use social media]."

Craig noted a social media policy could be more nailed down "when we have a paid [fire] service," quickly clarifying that won't be "in my lifetime."