Sacramento – The online photo showed a man passed out on a casino floor, still holding his beer, recalled investigator Steve Bowman. That was a red flag in a background check on the prospective police officer.
The photo wasn’t viewable by the public – privacy settings shielded it – but Bowman saw it because the job applicant was required to give investigators access to his social-media accounts so that they could view everything he had kept private.
Despite a law passed two years ago that barred employers from requiring job applicants to provide Facebook, Twitter or other social-media passwords, many state law enforcement agencies continue to require the disclosures.
“We interpret (the law) as only applying to private employers,” said Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney, who is a board member of the California Police Chiefs Association.
The law was worded in a way that appears to exclude public agencies from having to comply. Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, who authored the legislation, tried to close the loophole this year through AB25, but the bill stalled this week amid concerns from various groups.
Police administration groups said AB25 would prevent them from thoroughly vetting job candidates, including dispatchers and other nonpolicing positions that handle sensitive information. But police union groups – and other public employee unions – supported the legislation because it would protect public employees from having to divulge their passwords to win jobs or promotions.
However, negotiations fell apart over how to exempt some public-safety positions.
Where to draw line?
The Police Officers Research Association of California, a union-backed law enforcement lobbying group, said it supported both of Campos’ bills and had attempted to reach a deal with police management groups to allow some password disclosures, but with restrictions. Police management groups, however, wanted no restrictions on their ability to access social-media accounts of prospective and current employees changing jobs.
Durant said PORAC supported Campos’ 2012 social-media privacy bill, believing that it covered both public and private employees.
“I believe this will end up in litigation,” said PORAC President Mike Durant. “So much is done over social media by public and private employees, and so much can be misconstrued.”
In the end, AB25 was abandoned at the request of public employee unions, said Campos spokesman Steve Harmon.
“The employees have decided to let the courts weigh in on the issue,” Harmon said. “Campos’ intent has always been to protect the social-media privacy of all employees.”
Many employers already browse the social-media accounts of job applicants, but are limited to the publicly viewable pictures and information. The increasing use of privacy settings means most information and messages are not searchable without added access.
The standard practice in most California police departments is to require social-media passwords of job applicants, including those applying for dispatch and jail staff positions. Corney said many agencies, including his own, ask a prospective employee to log in to his or her social-media accounts in front of the investigator to review the material. Others ask job applicants to turn over their passwords for the background check.
Corney said past background checks have turned up evidence of sex crimes that led to criminal investigations.
“Obviously, when hiring someone who will serve as a public servant in law enforcement we do a thorough background check,” Corney said. “We turn over every stone. … Even now, it’s not a perfect system. So why would we want to restrict it?”
Some public employee unions fear that the police management argument for requiring social-media passwords during police background checks could easily be extended to other professions – such as people who work with children.
“(It’s) an outrageous invasion of privacy that could be extended to educators and school district applicants,” said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. “This is an issue we take very seriously and will take any possible action to ensure the rights and privacy of our members are protected.”