I credit the YouTube clip above with inspiring me to come up with a term to describe what I witnessed in the video and many other times in recent years: Social Media Assisted Career Suicide Syndrome or SMACSS. This video involves a story that first surfaced last week when Prince George’s County (MD) Police Department Chief Mark Magaw announced in a press conference that the two officers appearing in the video “could be fired”.
The short film is titled “Driving While Black” and is a satirical look at the issue of racial profiling during traffic stops. As Chief Magaw described, the video uses “demeaning language, racial slurs, and crude stereotypes.” The latest development surrounding the video is that the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, Bob Ross, does not believe the officers should be fired. Here’s what he told reporter Andrea Noble of The Washington Times:
“I would agree with a suspension rather than firing because they are young and immature,” Mr. Ross said. “If they had done that without the uniforms and without the police car, it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal. … It really was a good skit but when you have government employees doing it, it’s a different story.”
We likely won’t know whether these two officers end up losing their jobs until they get their day in court, or at least a trial board. Fraternal Order of Police President Vince Canales, who condemned the video during the chief’s press conference, told Noble, “These officers are entitled to due process and we are going to let the investigative process play out.”
But I have to ask this question: How can these officers really expect anything other than having to find alternative employment?
They used a real police car belonging to the department (likely a take home vehicle of one of the officers), real uniforms with the department’s patch and real department issued police equipment. They simulated traffic stops with lights and siren along public roads in public view as they appeared as actors in a video not sanctioned by the department. The video spoofs a real concern that police are having to deal with nationwide and one that has been a source of serious image problems for the officers’ own department for decades.
I ask again: How can anyone expect to hold onto their job after doing all that?
And I have another question. How did they think they were going to get away with it once the video was posted on YouTube or distributed by other means?
I think I already know the answer to question two. All rational thinking seems to go out the window for too many people when it comes to social media. They somehow have been led to believe that whatever they want to put on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter is just fine and should be without consequence. And when it involves someone in public safety, they often give the impression they believe there are no special responsibilities that come with being a police officer, firefighter, EMT or paramedic.
Let me make it clear that this column isn’t really about these two officers or the video “Driving While Black”. What I am writing here should not be seen as an opinion or a prompt for a discussion on the issue of racial profiling. My focus is on this video being the latest outrageous example of SMACSS. While this one may be especially sensitive for some because the topic of the video involves race, SMACCS cuts across many other topics and impacts public safety workers of all races, creeds, religions and ethnic origins. Just click on this link and scroll down. You will see plenty of other cases STATter911.com has covered where careers have been cut down because of bad judgment in using social media.
The best I can tell is that the underlying cause is pretty universal among law enforcement, firefighters and EMS who have contracted SMACSS. It comes from a belief that a person can post whatever they want, whenever they want. Uniform and public trust be damned.
While legislation in the form of a department’s social media policy may catch some cases before they happen, there is really no known cure. As long as there is social media and the Internet there will be those who can’t avoid contracting SMACCS. But it can be prevented through education.
It’s a really simple lesson, though a hard one to follow for those who were brought up to believe that everything in their lives must be shared with the world. But once they can fully understand and accept that there are legitimate ethical and legal issues where social media and public safety intersect, the chances for a long career will increase, while at the same time the likelihood of catching SMACSS will decrease.