Most First Responders are Unknowingly Breaking the Law Daily

It may not seem possible, but it’s true: around 90% of police officers and first responders unknowingly break the law daily while using apps and texting to communicate. We spoke with Jeff Halstead about why this is such a prevalent problem.

Jeff Halstead, Police Technology Consultant

After Jeff Halstead retired as the Chief of Police in Fort Worth, Texas, he worked as a consultant for large global police technology corporations. He still consults with agencies around the country.

His breadth of knowledge in first-responder technology and communication is unmatched. He walked us through the specific laws most first responders unknowingly break every day and what chiefs can do to get compliant before it becomes a problem.

Here is our interview with Jeff Halstead:

Which apps are allowed to be used on duty, and which are not allowed?

This is a great question and probably the most misunderstood for police officers, first responders, and government employees. The more detailed part of this question would be, “What specifically are you talking about while you are on duty?” Here are a few examples:

(On-duty AND work-related):

  • Conversations directly related to your employment, position, or title
  • Discussions regarding official decisions at work (operational in nature)
  • Evidentiary discussions and all conversations that are required to be saved as public record
  • Conversations that support official decisions at work (search warrants, policies, deployments, protests, arrests, etc.)
  • Supervisory/employee discussions (performance and work expectations)

(On-duty and NOT work-related):

  • Where are you going to take a meal break?
  • Personal in nature (how’s the family doing?/are you going on vacation soon?)

Now let’s talk specifically about apps. There were NO apps or secure communications platforms created specifically for police and first responders until recently (keep reading). Many years ago, I learned this because this market is very small, with thousands of users vs. hundreds of millions for consumer apps.

Consumer apps like GroupMe, WhatsApp, Signal, Confide, Slack, Telegram (and more), and even the more common SMS/text messages can get police officers and first responders in a LOT of trouble if used for government work, on-duty, and for work purposes. These apps are not compliant with most state’s laws on public records retention, FOIA, and specifically CJIS (for police). Some of them even allow the user to permanently delete conversations, which is completely illegal for police, first responders, and government employees.

The best rule to follow is: If the app you are using, including texting, was not specifically created for your profession, NEVER use it for official police conversations or government work.

How do the rules vary around the country?

Every state specifically outlines its “public records retention” laws. They also outline specifically what the crime is for ‘destruction of evidence’ or ‘interference with judicial proceedings’, which for police officers should be using illegal apps and texting that is deleted or not able to be produced when requested. It does not matter if this is requested by a judge, defense attorney, media, or your boss.  

So in every state in America, it is a crime. It is also illegal to use these platforms for work-related conversations if they do not conform to your state’s public records laws and retention of data. 

What truly concerns me, as a 31-year veteran serving in this profession, is that we have a lot of police officers communicating illegally…breaking the law…and they won’t realize this until it is too late.

What percentage of police officers are using illegal communication apps, and how can chiefs find out if their officers are using non-compliant apps?

This was really shocking to me when I retired as chief and started consulting on technology. I talked with agencies in 40 states across the U.S., including chiefs and sheriffs, line-level employees, police chief associations, and police unions.

An overwhelming majority of ALL public safety employees (over 90%) use texting and consumer apps while working. 

I was even more shocked when many of my close friends in patrol, investigations, SWAT, and narcotics all confessed they are using apps like GroupMe, WhatsApp, and Signal, and they never save, store, or retain all SMS or text messages that are work-related. 

I even consulted with an agency near the Mexico border that was using Facebook to share sensitive Cartel intelligence with Border Patrol, county sheriffs, and police officers. When I explained to them that Facebook owns all of that data, it is illegal, and those conversations cannot be forwarded as evidence in their investigations, they continued using Facebook. As they stated, “There’s nothing else for us to use.”

Chiefs, sheriffs, and command staff have NO idea their employees are using these illegal and non-compliant apps. In fact, ask any major city police department for a copy of their “Communications App Policy” as it relates to the use of consumer/social apps and encrypted communications platforms while working. Less than 5% of police departments have this specifically outlined, and I do not know of any that conduct monthly audits and physically inspect personally owned phones to see what apps are on their devices and used while working.

Is it always illegal for an officer to use an app while on duty? Are there exceptions or limitations?

This is a very slippery slope. Basically, no, as I mentioned in my first answer, it truly depends on what you are talking about with your fellow employees. It is totally legal to use a consumer app while working, BUT, all of your conversations have to remain in the ‘personal’ category. You can talk about where you want to eat lunch, how your vacation was, how the kids are doing, when you are going hunting, etc.  

Here is the challenge for the entire police profession and government. These apps are secure, private, and very easy to use; that’s why they are popular. So, we (all public servants) started using them to talk personally with our co-workers. Then, we get lazy and begin talking about work now and then. We see how fast and effective these private chats and group chats are, so we begin making specific ‘work groups’ to do their jobs better. 

Before you know it, your personal chats and the use of the consumer app are now always being used for work! And it is illegal! You really cannot blame the individual employee because all of their bosses are also unaware that these are illegal, and many of them are using them too!

Here is the best rule to follow and what I strictly advise all my clients when consulting:  

  • Work apps and platforms: 100% of all chats, texts, conversations, and photo sharing done here are ALL work-related
  • Consumer apps and platforms: 100% use for ALL personal conversations, chats, texts, and photo sharing
  • NEVER mix these two rules!
First Responder Safe and Secure Messaging App

Why is it important to use a secure, compliant app rather than text or social media apps? Why does it matter?

Use of non-secure apps:

As a police consultant, I have these conversations with chiefs and other public safety employees. I ask them where they keep their valuables, their money, and very important items for their family. All of them keep them in the most secure compartment they have (fortified safe, banks, secured). Then I ask them, “Why not just keep them in a cardboard box on a sidewalk?” The looks I get are pretty funny, but they soon get my point.

By using a non-secure communications app to share private, sensitive, and work-related conversations, you are now allowing a person with IT knowledge to steal your chats, texts, and intelligence. 

SMS/text messages are totally public, and the second you hit ‘send’, you have NO idea where that text will land, be forwarded to, or how far your texts reach.

Can you imagine very sensitive photos of a crime scene being in public while you are still working the crime scene? It’s happened many times because those images were shared in a text conversation and forwarded to thousands of people, ending up on a reporter’s phone and being a breaking news story on the internet.

Need for compliant apps:

I also ask police officers and other first responders why they have private briefings before a specialty unit serves a search warrant. Why not have these open to the public and televised? The reaction is always the same: “We have to have complete privacy over the information we are sharing. We don’t allow our own employees in here if they are not part of the specialty unit.” Then I ask them why they are using a non-compliant and non-secure communications app for these very private and sensitive conversations. No one was aware that they were not compliant with state laws.

Our first responders deal with life-and-death decisions every day! They cannot risk the safety of their operation OR risk their career by using non-compliant or consumer apps; it is a very dangerous and unsafe practice. 

Just like the safety equipment they wear, they need to use ONLY communications apps/platforms that are legal, secure, compliant, and under their control.

What are the potential consequences or punishments for agencies or officers using non-compliant apps?

The most important point I want to make here is that this topic is NOT being discussed in police departments and government agencies! Basically, you cannot blame the police officer or public safety employee at this point. The use of compliant and/or illegal apps has not been a topic of ‘in-service’ or advanced training for public safety employees. With that said, there are very few police officers and first responders who are intentionally using illegal apps. We really need to get this message out there to help them and save their careers.

At almost every agency I work with, they have NO idea that communications and app technology have surpassed legislation. Apps have merely been a very convenient method of communicating. Furthermore, in the past decade, almost ALL internal discussions and legal matters related to evidentiary data have been related to “body-worn cameras” (BWCs). I know this because I have helped hundreds of agencies (more than 40 states) deploy BWCs and have testified in court as an expert in this field of technology.

For officers, the risks are far too many. Just ONE public story about a controversial use of force and ALL employees involved could be the focus of the story once the media or activists found out they were communicating using “illegal apps” for 1st responders. 

Can you imagine this headline: “Police being investigated for using illegal apps while working”. You won’t survive that headline.

The punishment for employees could be extensive, up to and including termination, since in every state, it is illegal to knowingly use these apps or platforms and conceal, destroy, or delete evidentiary conversations. In some states, it’s a felony. Where I served as Chief in Texas, it is a misdemeanor, but the level of misdemeanor makes you unable to serve as a Texas-certified peace officer.

Think about that for a minute…you are committing a crime as a police officer, and that crime makes you unable to be a police officer!

The effect on the agency could be an in-depth probe, investigation, or federal review of practices (Department of Justice). Sadly, when this level of potential department-wide allegations begins, chiefs are fired very quickly. They do not survive this level of high-profile and potentially corrupt behavior, as the media story will depict.

Smartphone with multiple social media apps.

So, what’s the solution? Officers—especially young officers—want to communicate quickly on duty like they do when they are off-duty. 

Well, frankly, there was no solution until 2017.  

When I retired as Chief in January 2015, I began working as a senior consultant for one of the largest public safety technology companies in the world. I spent more than two years researching what types of secure communications and app technology needed to be created just for police, first responders, and government employees. None were available at the time.

I also discovered there are some corporate platforms that are very secure and safe and could be classified as ‘compliant’ but since they were created, developed, and sold to global corporations, their pricing model was far too high for a police budget.

I decided to partner with career technology creators and entrepreneurs, and we created a secure, compliant, encrypted communications app or platform where the agency owns and controls all data. This app/platform is called Genasys Protect CONNECT, formerly Evertel.

CONNECT is the only encrypted, compliant communications/app created just for first responders and government.

The agency has full ownership of ALL data, not the technology company. This is in stark contrast to all of the other communications apps and platforms out there today. In the consumer space, the tech company owns the data, making it a challenge to release data (chats and texts) as required by state law and FOIA

They also need to be aware that police officers share ‘criminal justice information’ or CJI. There are many standards and requirements specifically addressing the CJIS sharing of data.

What would you say to Chiefs who are overwhelmed at the thought of implementing new software, but who know non-compliant apps are a problem?

In less time than your next lunch break, your agency can be fully compliant! It is really that fast. Leadership will be even more surprised at the pricing. When you think about ‘technology’, you are thinking of hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. I know…I was heavily involved in some of the largest body-worn camera purchases in the USA.  

However, CONNECT is only $3.00 per user, per month! Most of our agencies pay with credit card or petty cash.

This is also a flat-rate pricing structure meaning there are NO hidden fees, expenses, or usage costs. It is unlimited data sharing, usage, and storage. It is also stored in the most secure & compliant cloud storage services for police and government. Since we are a SaaS model (Software as a Service), there are no complex contracts, you simply start using and become compliant in minutes.

Since the focus on policing and police officer communications is a highly reported topic, which will be very controversial, Chiefs and police leaders cannot take that risk.

In less than an hour, you can reduce all risks, and our support team at CONNECT will do all of the work to get every employee signed up! Go to our website and schedule a demo today, get compliant, and protect your employees and community.