Police Force Turns to Internet Memes, Social Media for Better Public Engagement

In Pennsylvania, the Wilkes-Barre Twp. Police Department's Facebook page has gotten mixed reactions, but the online presence has provoked significant citizen engagement.

by Sarah Scinto, Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa. / June 13, 2017

(TNS) — WILKES-BARRE TWP. — For the officer behind the Wilkes-Barre Township Police Department’s social media presence, the results of taking a meme-heavy, mostly humorous approach to Facebook outweigh any potential for offense or controversy.

“We’re never going to please or appease everyone,” said Patrolman Matthew Godlewski, who handles a majority of posts and comments on the page. “We’re seeing results from our interactions.”

Godlewski defended his approach to the police department’s Facebook page after some followers disapproved of comments made under a Saturday post informing vacationing residents that Ocean City, Md., is not a topless beach.

In a thread that has since been deleted, likely by the original poster according to Godlewski, user Mike Smith wrote “Officers will approach anyone going topless ... (insert joke here).”

The department responded with a photo of a woman covering her bare chest with her hands and a man holding his hand up in front of her with the caption “High five!”

Some followers questioned whether that response was appropriate coming from a police department. User Timothy Runkle commented and called the meme “unprofessional.”

Other commenters defended the department, and the department further responded with another meme showing a South Park character holding up a rag doll with the caption “Show us on the doll where the Facebook post hurt you.”

Facebook follower Kait Shoemaker wrote she found the meme inappropriate.

“Now you’re a police department sharing a meme mocking sexual abuse victims,” she commented. “It doesn’t make sense. Yes, funny on South Park because it’s a TV show and entertainment. Coming from a PD (sic)? Disgraceful!”

Godlewski responded to the controversy Sunday by saying the positive response to the department’s social media strategy outweighs the negative.

“If anyone anywhere does anything, somewhere someone is going to get offended,” he said. “As long as our supporters outnumber our naysayers I don’t necessarily see any reason for us to change.”

Posting for results

In an interview with The Citizens’ Voice, a Times-Shamrock newspaper, on June 5, Godlewski, an officer with the department since 2006, discussed the results he has seen since taking on the project of making the department’s Facebook a more humorous space and using internet memes to communicate laws.

“We’ve been testing the waters initially,” he said. “We did a post about driving without Jeep doors ... that was like a snowball effect for us.”

Since testing the humorous approach, the department’s Facebook page has skyrocketed in followers. Godlewski said Wilkes-Barre Township has about 2,000 residents — the page has more than 55,000 “likes” and followers so far thanks to a few viral posts.

Recently, on May 24, Godlewski crafted a humorous post seeking to “reunite” the owner of $1,600 worth of crack cocaine with the stash of drugs police found in the parking lot of Wilkes-Barre Township Commons.

That post was shared more than 1,300 times, getting the information of the crime in front of thousands of people.

Godlewski said the humorous posts drive traffic to the page in following days, getting more eyes on the serious posts about retail thefts, wanted persons and other crimes — which sometimes lead to identifications and arrests that would have taken police much longer without Facebook as a tool.

“Once we (posted) a retail theft and we were able to get photos,” Godlewski said. “Within two minutes we had a positive ID. We’re reaching the public and being able to solve crimes. Without this we’d be scratching our heads.”

He’s recently started sharing “Law of the Day” posts in an effort to take a proactive approach and educate the page’s followers about laws they may not have known before — he said he’s learned some new laws himself throughout the process.

“We reached out and everybody was like ‘yeah, that’s a great idea,’” he said. “You can really learn something new every day.”

Godlewski said he often has to deal with negative comments on his Facebook posts — most frequently people complaining about cops spending time on social media.

For those who wonder about their “taxpayer dollars,” funding a police officer fooling around on Facebook, Godlewski said most of his responses happen within 20 minutes while he’s at home.

“Most of the time these replies are occurring, I’m at home. I’m sitting at home watching Netflix or whatever,” he said, laughing. “This is just dedication at work, that’s what it really is.”

Other officers, like Capt. Will Clark and Patrolman Robert Capparell, also contribute to the page. Godlewski said Clark manages the day to day, press release-type posts, but has started coming around to using memes and other humor.

“Or as he calls them, ‘Me Mes,’” Godlewski said.

The department has come to see Facebook as a tool for community relations, but also a potential deterrent for crime. Godlewski said with the page’s notoriety, people arrested by Wilkes-Barre Township officers often ask about whether they’ll end up on Facebook or not.

“Their first question is ... usually, don’t put me on Facebook,” he said. “That in itself is a deterrent. So we’re looking at new avenues — maybe Facebook in itself is a deterrent.”

©2017 the Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.