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SFPD Proposes Social Media Policy Following Sexual Exploitation Scandal

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The San Francisco Police Department and Police Officers Association have agreed on a general order governing officers' personal use of social media. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

The San Francisco Police Department and labor union representing its officers have agreed on a policy governing social media use by city police.

The proposed department general order comes following a sexual exploitation scandal involving several Bay Area law enforcement agencies and dozens of law enforcement officers alleged to have had sex with a woman who works in the sex trade and was trafficked as a child.

Many interactions between "Celeste Guap" and officers originated on social media, including ones with more than two-dozen current and retired SFPD officers uncovered by a KQED investigation. Guap said via text message that she had sex with three current SFPD officers and "planned to sleep with a few more."

The San Francisco Examiner identified one of those officers as Rodger Ponce De Leon. Guap later told the newspaper she had sex and shared cocaine with Ponce De Leon before she turned 18.

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The Police Department's new policy was in the works since sometime last year -- after a series of racist and homophobic text messages swapped by SFPD officers came to light, and long before the scandal that precipitated resignations of three Oakland police chiefs.

But the sexual exploitation scandal centered in Oakland accelerated San Francisco's effort.

"We’ve seen the situation in Oakland, we saw the situation in our own department through some of the hideous text messages that were being sent back and forth," said Gary Delagnes, former president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. He's currently a political consultant for the union, and he was part of negotiations over the social media policy.

"Everybody was kind of on the same page on this one," Delagnes said. "You can’t give the appearance to the public that this is the way we act or the way we think."

Delagnes and a Police Department spokesman said the sexual exploitation scandal played no role in development of the policy. Several provisions, however, appear to address it.

For example:

Members are prohibited from any use of personal social media to contact or communicate (e.g., “friending”, “following”, messaging, etc.) with witnesses, crime victims, or any person under the age of 18 who members interact with through the course of their official duties with the Department. Such contacts or communications on social media could impair the member’s capacity to perform his or her duties or jeopardize an ongoing investigation or criminal case. All such contacts and communications shall be done through Department authorized methods and channels (e.g., Department email, etc.). These restrictions do not apply to communications with relatives of Department members that members have a relationship with outside the Department.

Golden Gate University law professor Peter Keane -- who is also a member of the San Francisco Ethics Commission and a former police commissioner -- said the new policy makes it clear that some of the interactions officers had with Guap on Facebook were inappropriate.

"The department has addressed that issue in this memo and in regard to the kind of activity that we know of that those police officers were involved in with this young woman," Keane said. "Much of that activity on their part violated provisions of this memo."

Current Police Commissioner Victor Hwang also said that section of the policy appears to be in response to Guap's apparent sexual exploitation.

"This all kind of seems like common sense," Hwang said.

Police Department representatives noted a balancing act between addressing officers' conduct on social media while respecting officers' First Amendment rights.

"Particularly in a sensitive type of employment like being a police officer," Keane said, "which has so much power and has so many implications for the community at large, the Police Department can as a reasonable condition of employment require you to have a limitation on your First Amendment expression that a regular citizen doesn't have."

Delagnes agreed.

"If you're in a position of power such as a police officer, you cannot be doing these things on social media, even if it is tongue-in-cheek," he said. "Those days are over. You cannot do that."

Delagnes said "where cops' First Amendment rights start and end" is part of a national debate.

"A lot of this stuff may end up at the Supreme Court," he said, adding that the union recognizes that the landscape of law enforcement has changed. He said it's clear that "locker room banter" won't be tolerated from police officers.

"Because of the nature of our job and what's going on in the world, that banter can't happen anymore," Delagnes said.

The Police Commission is tentatively scheduled to give the policy a final vote Sept. 7.

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