At, my moderation team includes not one but two veteran law enforcement officers. They each have spent several years as moderators with me, but their day job didn’t become apparent to me until after I had already brought them on. I found the connection – between what they do within the community I manage and what they do as a profession – to be so interesting, that I asked if they’d be open to a conversation to talk about it. I was grateful when they agreed.

Alex Embry is a sergeant in the McHenry County Sheriff’s Department in Illinois, where he is also a member of the SWAT team. Brian Walker works as a patrol deputy in the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office in Kansas. Together, they have approximately 19 years experience in law enforcement and have spent 15 years as moderators on

In part one of the conversation, we discussed their backgrounds, the similarities between the two roles, how to be seen by the community as more than just an enforcer and the proper use of discretion. In part two, we shift to the darker side of these responsibilities.

Becoming Jaded

Patrick: In both roles, you are exposed to the bad things that happen, that most people are probably not aware of, in the pursuit of a functioning society or a friendly, respectful online community. I think it’s natural in either role for someone to enter it with the utmost optimism, but eventually become jaded and expect that people will let you down. In other words, it’s a role that can beat on you. How do you maintain balance and a sense of optimism?

Alex: On the job it’s a matter of stepping away on your time off. The most well maintained officers psychologically are the ones that aren’t at work on their off time. It’s key to have something that is important to you – that isn’t the job.

Brian: I agree. Fishing has become my favorite past time of late, and it really calms my mind and lets me get away from things. At, it’s the time I spend training in the martial arts that really fuels me up to return to the forums.

Alex: There is some of that in a moderator role as well. That said, we have a great community here so it’s not that trying. If anything wears on me, it’s the “why can’t people read the guidelines” conversations I have with myself. The spammers and advertisers aren’t going to comply anyway. I get that, but it can be irritating when it’s clear from a post that someone actually wants to seriously contribute then let’s profanity slip in. This could be easy: read the guidelines! But it’s so often missed, it drives me crazy.

On this note, I remind myself that people are new and indoctrinated by the standard operating procedures of the internet. It’s my job to ensure that their posts comply here and educate them when they don’t. It’s also helpful that a bulk of our usual traffic is just fine and everyone is mindful.

Brian: I have had some of the same feelings here, as well. You can always tell the ones who haven’t read the guidelines. But like Alex mentioned, its our job to educate and point them in the right direction. More often than not, it works well, and we get some good contributors here. But sometimes, as you can attest to, Patrick, it doesn’t work out and some posters realize that they have to go in another direction.

It’s easy to become jaded, that’s for sure. I look at it this way: I don’t ever assume that someone can’t change and get better, but I don’t make assumptions based on the idea that someone can change, either. If they claim they have changed, then I wait for them to prove it to me, through deeds and actions. In the law enforcement community, sometimes you can see that someone has changed just by their lack of presence. The same bad guys tend to pop up over and over again. But even then, that doesn’t necessarily mean a change for the better has been made, either.

I maintain optimism by realizing that most of the time, I can go out and make a lot of positive contacts; I just usually have to seek them out. A lot of the time in law enforcement, we don’t talk to someone until they are having a bad day. I try to make contacts of a positive nature when I can. For example, saying “hi” to the kids walking home from school, stopping and visiting with the folks in convenience stores and things like that. I also maintain optimism because I really enjoy what I do, and after something bad has gone down and things have been resolved, I usually feel pretty good later on about what I did.

With moderating, it’s pretty much the same way. I can make lots of positive contributions in the community, and I see lots of positive contributions every day. The negative ones usually don’t rise to the level of taking away from the positive experience.

Brian Walker, martial artist

Brian Walker, martial artist

I try not to let things get personal, both at work and on the forums. If I let things get personal, then the bad guy wins by getting under my skin and allowing him or herself to have an effect on how I do my job and live my life. Same with some posters I have dealt with in the past. I recall one individual, although I forget his name, who really got upset when I removed a post. He proceeded to send me private messages, and I think he even posted in the forums a few more times, saying vile things about me and using my real first and last names in the PMs and posts.

It would have been very easy for me to get upset about that and fire off retorts in private and public or even begin emailing him responses, but what good would it have done? I just removed the posts and let Patrick handle it from there. The big key is to remain professional. I feel better about myself at the end of the day if I do that.

Abuse of Power and Corruption

Patrick: I want to talk about abuse of power and corruption. As we’ve discussed, there are similarities between moderators and LEOs. But in a different light, the comparison is kind of silly. Law enforcement officers risk their lives everyday. Moderators do not. If an officer is corrupt or abuses their power, far worse things can happen than someone being banned from an online community.

I believe that the majority of law enforcement are doing the best that they can, like I believe that the majority of moderators are doing the best that they can. I believe that some of both groups probably don’t put their best effort forward and don’t care enough. That doesn’t make them bad people, it just makes them mediocre. In movies and TV shows, there are sometimes bumbling cops. They aren’t bad people, they just aren’t terribly proficient.

But then there is a percentage (of both moderators and law enforcement officers) that abuses their authority to target people unfairly, achieve personal gain or to commit offenses themselves.

This is a big topic and there are a lot of issues at play. The worst of our society always gets more headlines than the best. Good behavior is an expectation. A murderer is on the news for weeks. The doctor who saved 10 lives last week doesn’t receive a mention. It can seem both understandable and unfair – at the same time.

Even so, I wanted to introduce the topic to see where we would take it. How can abuse be prevented? How can it be addressed in a way that restores confidence? What other factors should be kept in mind?

Brian: This is a topic that I get very emotional about, and I’m sure Alex feels the same way. There is nothing worse for the reputation of a department than a rogue officer or deputy. Without going into too much detail, I’ve seen and heard of things like this, and it cuts me to the quick. I mentioned earlier about maintaining professionalism in the job, and this scenario is the toughest one to do that with. We expect the criminals to be degenerates; we don’t expect it from the officers that are supposed to be on our team. And one bad officer will taint a department for years to come in the eyes of the public. It’s something that can be tough for a department to get over and can even cause a complete change in administration. The worst part of it is that one bad officer puts a bad name on the whole department, and all the good officers that are working hard to do the right things get swept up into the flames, and they get labeled as bad officers, too.

The best way to prevent abuse is to surround yourself with individuals that are strong in their beliefs in integrity and accountability. This may come across a bit crass, but I believe, and have mentioned this to people in the past, that your integrity is like your virginity; you really only lose it once. Once squandered, integrity is so hard to rebuild, because you have to rebuild it through everyone else, not through yourself. Accountability goes hand in hand with integrity. We all make mistakes; this doesn’t make us bad people, though. It makes us human.

Accountability is taking responsibility for our mistakes, admitting them and then making the effort to correct them and get better. In my opinion, these are two defining qualities that a good officer and a good moderator need to have. If you can seek out and identify people with these qualities, then you can be pretty certain that you have found someone that you can train and mold into the kind of presence that you want in your community.

The only unfortunate thing here is that it’s tough to account for the changes in heart that people can have over time. It could be that someone starts out with these qualities as an officer, has a good work ethic and attitude, but becomes so jaded over time that they feel they don’t make a difference. From there, they might decide that being the good guy isn’t worthwhile and perhaps take a turn for the worse. It can happen, and it’s unfortunate. But I think that by and large, most good people will stay good people, because their integrity means so much to them.

Now, I think this can be tougher for a community manager or administrator to figure out than it is for a department hiring someone. Departments have the advantage of being able to look over resumes, contact references, have face-to-face interviews and perform background checks on their potential hires. The forum administrator doesn’t really have this advantage and therefore usually has to rely on the work they’ve seen put forth in a community to make their decisions.

Maintaining the history that you do here, Patrick, in regards to documenting violations over time, goes a long way in being able to make informed decisions on who to bring on board as staff. I know when I was a member early on, when I started receiving those first few private messages regarding the violations I committed, I wanted to do my best to stop. The documentation process you have here allows you to see who is willing to make changes and who won’t. It’s a great evaluation process for potential staff.

To bring this back to the main point: when it comes to addressing abuse, I think the main thing is to educate. Early on, some people want to do such a good job that they really get overzealous, which can lead to what appears to be abuse of power. In cases like this, a little bit of constructive criticism can perhaps help the officer/moderator learn how to dial things back a bit and still do a good job.

Alex Embry, left, performing a choke (martial arts technique)

Alex Embry, left, performing a choke (martial arts technique)

Alex: It’s a big question, for sure. That said, on both fronts, there are some good indicators that will let your citizens or community members know how you are going to deal with this sort of thing and what the likelihood is of abuse.

First up, there is the question of what your department (or manager/administrator in the case of the forums) will allow to be set as the tone and tenor of your personnel.

Departments that routinely let officers conduct shady work in the name of numbers (or even results) – and the troops know that it’s tolerated – set themselves up for abusive officers. Likewise, I feel that a manager that looks the other way for the sake of a hot thread or allows violations of his/her own guidelines for the sake of participation has set the tone for the moderators. Those individuals (and agencies) shouldn’t be surprised when their people do bad things. They’ve bred an environment that encourages that behavior.

Likewise, a department that fails to take the time and energy to train their people should not be surprised when things go sideways, either. Their people aren’t taught the proper interpersonal or technical skills to deal with situations they are faced with.

Lastly, there is a certain community role in how officers act. A beat that is constantly combative will elicit a different response than one that wants to work with police. I’m not saying it’s right, but I will say it’s a fact: people who are antagonistic and combative will affect how an officer responds. Sometimes, this can either be perceived as too much aggression, or it might actually be too much aggression. We’re human. But the environment that we work in affects us.

That said, here’s the great thing about

  1. Patrick, you are upfront about the expectations for the whole community and by extension the moderators. And you’re willing to talk with the moderators about actions that you aren’t comfortable with. That means that a clear line is drawn. This is not an oppressive line, but one that makes it easy and fun to do the job.
  2. Here at, everyone is more than willing to help each other (on a moderator level) with technical issues. I’ve had my issues and no one has ever shied away from helping me out. And I’ve seen more than one post in the Sensei (moderator) section in regard to this sort of thing. That’s training. It lets us cope better with each situation that comes up.
  3. The community here is great. There is occasionally an individual attack against a moderator, but it is not constant and continuous. Most – virtually all – members want the kind of community that we are dedicated to. When they make a mistake, they usually move to correct it. This makes the moderator’s job much easier and more fulfilling.

Now, if only police departments would start to pick on those things more often (smiley face).

Part Three

In part three, our conversation concludes with advice on dealing with offline and suicide threats and how being a law enforcement officer has helped Alex and Brian to be a better moderator – and how being a moderator has improved their work in law enforcement. Read part three.