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Police in Massachusetts Say Online Privacy Bill Would Prevent Vetting of New Recruits

A bill passed in state Senate last week is aiming to protect the online privacy of people across Massachusetts, but police chiefs are saying it could hold them back from vetting potential officers.

(TNS) — BOSTON — A bill passed in the state Senate last week aims to protect the online privacy of students and employees across the state.

However, Massachusetts police chiefs say the legislation would hamstring law enforcement in vetting the social media accounts of prospective police officers.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, would bar educational institutions from requiring students or prospective students to divulge information about their personal online presence, including photos and usernames.

The legislation, passed in a unanimous 36-0 vote in the Senate on March 15, also would bar employers from requiring an employee or job applicant to disclose photos, videos, or usernames contained in personal social media accounts.

The measure now goes to the state House of Representatives for consideration.

"We would never allow employers or schools to read our diaries or journals, open our mail or rifle through our personal photo albums," Ms. Creem said.

"The private communications and information we store online in our personal and social media accounts deserve the same legal protections."

An amendment sponsored by Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury, and others, provides an exemption for law enforcement officers investigating a credible complaint that an employee or candidate for employment has engaged in unlawful discriminatory or harassing behavior online.

However, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association says the "watered down" amendment that ultimately was approved doesn't go far enough in allowing scrutiny of prospective police officers.

The chiefs association had backed an earlier version of the Moore amendment that would have provided relatively unfettered access to the social media accounts of police recruit applicants, and of police officers who have come under investigation for alleged unethical or immoral behavior online.

"Thursday's vote limits the ability of local police chiefs to request or require that prospective candidates who choose to become police officers to provide access to their social media accounts," the association's legislative chair, Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, and the group's president, Dudley Police Chief Steven Wojnar, said in a joint statement released Monday.

"In the interest of transparency, this type of limited access during the background phase is absolutely essential," the chiefs said.

"We all agree, and quite frankly demand, that law enforcement officials are held to a higher standard of ethical and moral conduct. Therefore anything that we as police chiefs can do to ensure the appropriate suitability of our future police officers must not be compromised."

Earlier this month, a Massachusetts State Police trooper was suspended without pay indefinitely after The Boston Globe reported he had a history of racist online posts.

State police announced the action against Trooper Matthew Sheehan on March 2. The Globe reported that Trooper Sheehan posted racist and offensive comments on a website called MassCops under the screen name "Big Irish."

Trooper Sheehan had been put on paid leave after he fired his rifle while police were rounding up a group that had been riding off-road bikes and all-terrain vehicles on Interstate 93. An ATV driver was wounded in the foot.

Material from State House News Service and The Associated Press was used in this report.

©2018 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.