Sexting: Are You Training to Prevent It?

John G. Peters, Jr., Ph.D., CTC, CLS

By now, you have heard about the 21 month jail sentence given to former New York Congressman, Anthony Weiner, for sexting a 15-year-old girl. Sentenced on September 25, 2017, he will begin his incarceration in early November.

Sexting, or textual harassment, generally involves the sending or receiving of sexually explicit text messages, photos, video, social network messages, E-mails, etc., which can lead to a sexually charged workplace, cyberbullying, embarrassment, and almost always gets the sender in trouble. Even when the sexting is between two consenting persons, it can violate criminal statutes and/or employer policy.

Sexting Statistics

In an online survey (N=1280), 39% of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19 reported they have sent a sext message. The frequency is higher for young adults between the ages of 20 and 26, where 50% of the respondents reported having sent a sext message. Messages were sent by both men and woman – 62% and 56%, respectively. The percentage of young adults who reportedly had received a sext message was 64%.

In another online sexting study of adults (N=870), whose ages ranged from 18 to 92 (mean age was 35), 88% reported sexting at least once, with 82% reporting sexting within the past 12 months. While most respondents reported sexting a “partner” (74%) in what they described as a committed relationship, others reported the frequency of sexting in a casual relationship (43%) and in a cheating relationship (12%). Of those individuals who reported sexting, 96% of them endorsed its practice.

In another study conducted by Kinsey Institute researchers, about 25% of adults who had received provocative photo messages shared them on average with three other people. In short, sexting appears to take place with great frequency among, and between, adults.

LEOs Caught Sexting

There have been several documented cases of LEOs who have been terminated or have received serious discipline, after being caught sexting. In 2016, a Colorado officer reportedly sent and received more than 4000 sexting messages in three months. These messages included sending photographs of his genitals while receiving nude photos in return from one or more of the four women he was sexting while on duty. The sexting was reported to be consensual between the officer and the women. After it was discovered by investigators, the officer resigned from the agency.

A Georgia LEO was fired in 2016 for conduct unbecoming after he had videotaped himself during a sex act and then sent it to a woman while he was working. Similarly, in 2017, an Arizona 12 year veteran LEO used his department issued cellular telephone to exchange lewd photos while working. He was reportedly fired for engaging in sexual activity while on duty, for conduct unbecoming, and for neglect of duty.

In yet another misconduct incident, a Michigan LEO sent pictures of his genitals to a woman he had met on duty. The LEO received four days off as discipline for his unprofessional behavior.

Update Agency Policy

Following the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decisions in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 118 S. Ct. 998 (1998), Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 118 S. Ct. 2275 (1998), and Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, 118 S. Ct. 2257 (1998), numerous municipalities and/or law enforcement agencies drafted sexual harassment policies and trained employees on them. At times, the sexual harassment policy enacted by the municipality was at odds with the law enforcement agency policy, often discovered during sexual harassment litigation. Over time, many of these policies were not updated because they had been treated as a project and not an ongoing process.

If textual harassment, or sexting, has not been added to your agency’s sexual harassment policy, time is of the essence. This important topic must be added to the policy, with employees being told when such behavior is unacceptable (i.e., on duty, off duty, agency issued phone, etc.). The policy must include a preservation of evidence (e.g., nude photos, messages, etc.) provision, as well as a preservation order (i.e., to keep and maintain potential evidence).

After updating the sexual harassment policy, administrators, supervisors and trainers must compare the municipality and the agency policy to make sure they are not at odds, or that one policy includes items not included in the other policy. After confirming both policies are in sync, LEOs must be trained on the updated policy.

Update Agency Training

Trainers must educate all employees about the updated policy, giving examples and definitions of sexting and textual harassment. Examples of sexting messages can be found on the Internet, so learners can view explicit examples. Case studies about LEOs who were fired or disciplined for engaging in sexting or textual harassment can be discussed to help ensure everyone understands what are considered prohibited behaviors, per policy.

To determine if learners understand the training, competency-based written tests must be given to assess leaner knowledge. Written tests play a very important role in helping to defend municipalities which are engaged in litigation and help trainers identify weaknesses in their training program. The use of scenario-based training also serves as a litigation buffer when used appropriately and in conjunction with cognitive testing.

Unwritten Ground Rules

An often overlooked (yet important) part of any policy and training program is to identify the official organizational culture and the organizational subculture. Organizational culture is the collective beliefs, expectations and values which are learned and shared based on the mission of the organization. In contrast, subculture focuses on the attitudes and values which shape LEO’s behavior and include Unwritten Ground Rules (UGR).

When UGRs are examined, the “actual” culture of the organization and/or unit is identified. All of us have experienced UGRs at some point in our career. For example, an experienced LEO or supervisor says, “Don’t worry about the harassment policy. You’re safe. No one will come after you. If you get any good photos, let me see them, too.”

UGRs Can Require Training Update

If administrators, supervisors and/or trainers identify a disconnect between what LEOs were taught about sexting and UGRs which appear to subvert the training, trainers must revise and update the training. For example, in one large law enforcement agency, when body-worn cameras were being tested by two hundred officers, a review of camera footage showed LEOs were using inappropriate language, even though they had been trained to watch what they said while wearing cameras.

Listening to the LEO’s language and watching their behaviors, the agency’s body-worn camera supervisor stopped the pilot program and required each LEO to undergo remedial training. During the training, select video footage was shown to illustrate the subculture behaviors of LEOs. Policy and training were reviewed with each LEO before continuing with the study. The remedial training had worked, as agency trainers were able to realign LEOs to embrace the body-worn camera policy, training and expected behaviors. The success of the pilot program enabled the adoption of cameras for each patrol officer.


Sexting, or textual harassment, has become an accepted activity of many people, including LEOs. Through updated sexual harassment policy and training, LEOs must be taught when this behavior is unacceptable, when it is illegal and when they can expect to be disciplined. The range of discipline may range from immediate termination to counseling. If criminal statutes are violated, the guilty LEO may end up being sent to jail, comparable to Anthony Weiner.

John G. Peters, Jr., Ph.D., CTC, CLS serves as president of the internationally recognized training firm, Institute for the Prevention of In-custody Deaths, Inc., and serves as a consultant and expert witness through his consulting firm, John G. Peters, Jr. & Associates. A former law enforcement administrator and officer, Dr. Peters has conducted research on the frequency of sexual harassment behaviors in law enforcement agencies, and is a frequent contributor to Police and Security News.