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When social media complicate the undercover work of police officers

The Facebook post included several photos of a smiling Baltimore County police officer, some of him in a suit, another sporting outdoor gear. None showed him in uniform or flashing a badge.

The officer works undercover, and the Facebook poster warned that he investigates gun-related cases. The Facebook user's friend had been arrested in June by the officer in an illegal arms sting. The officer is "known to pose as a gun dealer in order to entrap and arrest people," the post read.

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"Please share this."

Law enforcement agencies in Baltimore and across the country are grappling with social media sites and the implications for officers who work undercover. In some cases, publicly identifying an undercover officer on social media has resulted in jail time. Other times, prosecutors say the postings may not constitute a crime, as online speech can be construed as merely sharing — not threatening.

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Such public outings of undercover officers are part of the risks of participating in social media, where there are few rules and filters, prompting some police departments to warn officers to keep a low profile on the Internet.

Most Baltimore area departments have policies for social media aimed at prohibiting posts that would hurt the department's integrity, and some specifically address those working in undercover assignments.

Baltimore County police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said the department has a policy advising officers to use common sense on social media — for instance, not posting information about investigations. But she said the department wanted to strike a balance and not interfere in personal speech.

"Baltimore County does not regulate employees personal use of social media," she said. "We respect employees rights to use social media."

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She also said the department is careful to protect the identities of undercover officers. They "are typically very low profile. We take great pains ourselves to protect their identities," she said.

The Baltimore City Police Department's social media policy states it's "not intended to impose a wholesale restriction on the free exchange of information or opinions."

But the city's policy does, in some cases, "extend the Department's existing standards of conduct, ethics and professionalism to the domain of social media." The policy also warns members: "Do not assume any expectation of privacy when posting information to the Internet or a social media site, regardless of user privacy settings or other access controls."

Howard and Anne Arundel counties have similar policies in place. Anne Arundel explicitly prohibits undercover officers from posting "any form of visual or personal identification." But Howard's policy only states that "members are to be cautious when identifying themselves as members of the Department on the Internet."

A Harford County police spokeswoman said the department is working to develop a social media policy.

The Baltimore County officer was exposed even though he didn't publicly identify himself as a police officer on his Facebook page, which has since been taken down.

Armacost said the department determined the post didn't rise to the level of a criminal threat. The post has since been taken down.

"We took a look at it, but at the end of the day, there was no threat," she said. "It is not a crime to post a photo of a police officer," she said, adding that includes undercover officers.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger noted the posting didn't include a direct threat. "Technically, it could put the person at risk but the risk is not directly from the person doing the posting," he said.

Criminal law related to social media is evolving. A state law took effect this month to make posting intimate pictures online as means of getting back at a former spouse or lover — more commonly known as "revenge porn"— a misdemeanor punishable by two years in jail or a $5,000 fine.

"This whole posting thing on Facebook is a difficult area," Shellenberger said. "As social media and all these things start expanding, we will have to adapt our laws."

The Baltimore County case stemmed from a sting in which officers responded to an ad from someone looking to purchase a handgun on a site called Armslist, similar to Craigslist, where users can purchase firearms. The officer offered to sell a High Point 9 mm handgun.

The defendant, a teenager from Pikesville, agreed to purchase the gun for $200 at the Old Court metro station near his home. After the exchange, the teen was arrested and charged with four counts, including unlawful sale.

The teenager's Facebook friend later posted the officer's picture and the warning about entrapment. The photos in the post appeared to be taken from the Baltimore County officer's Facebook page.

In cases around the country, social media postings about undercover officers have led to criminal charges.

In Toledo, a man was sentenced to 90 days for obstruction of justice after photographing an undercover narcotics detective as he left the courthouse and later posting it to social media.

"We take the safety of our officers very seriously, especially our undercover detectives," said Toledo police spokesman Sgt. Joe Heffernan.

Heffernan said the Toledo department discourages officers from identifying themselves as police on their personal social media pages, or posting photos of themselves in uniform on those pages.

"We get videotaped all the time. This situation was a little different. This is an undercover officer. He has a dangerous job," Heffernan said, noting that the last officer who died in the line of duty in Toledo in 2007 was an undercover narcotics officer.

A Texas woman was charged with retaliation after a similar incident. She reportedly posted a photo of an undercover Mesquite police officer on Facebook, after her friend found the officer's photo on the site. "Anyone know this [expletive]?" according to a federal affidavit, the Dallas Morning News reported.

A spokeswoman with the Dallas district attorney's office said prosecutors found insufficient evidence for the case, and the charges were dropped.

Last year, an undercover D.C. police officer was identified by a group of protesters she had been assigned to cover after they located her personal Twitter page where she identified herself a police officer. The protesters recognized the officer as a regular at events and matched her picture to the Twitter account, the Washington Post reported. The officer took down the Twitter account.

And in August, when Baltimore residents joined in protests against police brutality following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., some carried signs with pictures of Baltimore Police officers named in recent police-involved deaths.

One protester carried a sign with a photo from the Facebook account of one of the Baltimore officers identified in the death of Tyrone West. West died after a struggle with police during a traffic stop, and officers have been cleared of wrongdoing.

Cole Weston, president of the Baltimore County FOP, said "everybody should be very cautious of what they put" online and in social media accounts, including police and citizens. But he said that doesn't mean officers need to delete accounts.

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"That's an individual choice that they have to think about, if they choose to participate in social media," he said.

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