Police Connect with Community Through Social Media

After a year of tense relations with police in cities across the country, some police departments are embracing social media to show the human side of their jobs.

by Mark LaFlamme, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine / January 8, 2016

(TNS) -- In Lewiston, Maine, a police officer goes head to head with a skunk. The cop loses and returns to the station reeking.

In Auburn, the deputy police chief forgets to close his sunroof during a winter storm. Oops! The SUV is full of snow the following morning and the deputy chief has earned a new nickname.

At the Androscoggin County Sheriff's Department, deputies mourn the passing of a character from the TV show "Adam 12."

Cops as ordinary people. Who knew? Until social media came along, few people outside of police circles got to see and hear these stories from the lighter side of law enforcement.

And let's be honest: There is a lot of that.

"People think we write tickets and stop cars all day long, but we really handle some crazy calls," said Lewiston police Sgt. Robert Ullrich, who single-handedly runs that department's Facebook page. "The average Joe has no idea. I think it's important for the public to know how much we really do."

When Lewiston police Sgt. Wayne Clifford was sprayed by a skunk during an ill-conceived animal rescue in November, Ullrich was inspired. After clearing it with the stinky Clifford, he posted the story and photos on Facebook, and readers pounced on it. It was a lesson learned: In this day of instant news and nonstop social interaction, it's sometimes OK for a police officer to laugh at himself when things get weird.

"Sometimes I think we're afraid to show our human side," Ullrich said. "I'm trying to get the word out to the troops to open up a little bit."

In Bangor, has garnered what some might deem a cult following: Some 87,000 people go to the page for insider jokes, offbeat photos and tales of cop versus criminal that are at times masterfully written.

"Going through reports at the first of the new year surprised me," an officer wrote on the Bangor Police Department Facebook page this week. "It is apparent that many people did not turn over a new leaf. Of course, I have no idea if they actually went to the gym or started drinking less. I take that back, I don't know if they went to the gym."

The Bangor brand of wit comes from police Sgt. Tim Cotton, who manages the Police Department's Facebook page and who is not afraid to take on the old cliches, including the under-the-breath comment, "I smell bacon!" when police are around and the persistent rumor that no police officer anywhere can resist the sweet call of doughnuts.

Cotton's posts are so well-crafted, it's easy to make the assumption that his background is in writing.

Nope.

"I've written police reports for 27 years," Cotton said. "If you don't count that, I have zero writing credentials. ... I did have a fantastic English composition teacher in high school named William Prest. I did very poorly in his class. But that was not his fault. He was a fantastic teacher."

In Bangor, police have the art of social media interaction mastered. Here in Androscoggin County, the cops are just getting started.

When Eric Samson took over as Androscoggin County sheriff at the start of 2015, the department's Facebook page had 1,000 likes, meaning 1,000 people were actively following them.

"We wanted to double that number," Samson said, "and we figured the best way to do it was to appeal to different audiences."

Enter the fluffier side of police work: photos of inmates crocheting hats for local children; spiffy new coffee mugs; stories of cool dogs doing cool things.

Samson asked his officers to keep the Facebook page in mind if they stumbled into funny, interesting or embarrassing situations, and especially if they had photos to include. That would require that the officers have the ability to laugh at themselves, Samson said, "but most of the guys in patrol have good senses of humor."

Samson manages the department's Facebook with the help of Chief Deputy William Gagne.

The Facebook page now has 3,380 likes, meaning the department was able to more than triple its following.

Police aren't simply posting the fun stuff to entertain the masses. They have ulterior motives.

"As much as you can do to get people to interact with your page," Samson said, "the more they're going to pay attention to what's going on with the department."

By garnering followers, police departments can push out information about new hires, community events, parking bans and the like. Social media is also a way for police to solicit help from the public in solving mysteries.

In Greene last year, an unidentified woman was found wandering along a back road in the wee hours of night. County sheriff's deputies had no idea who she was, so they posted a photo on Facebook. Within hours, the woman was identified and the matter resolved.

In Auburn this week, police discovered on an apartment door. "Nock hard," the sign stated, misspelling and all, "but not like you the police."

By Wednesday afternoon, more than 500 people had viewed the photo, 46 had commented and 209 had shared it. Not bad for a page that's just starting to get more playful to engage its audience.

Then there's Auburn's Deputy Police Chief Jason Moen who, in late December, left his sunroof open overnight during a snowstorm. A picture of his truck's snowy interior was posted on the Auburn Police Department Facebook page and the story was picked up by media as far away as Boston.

“All you can do is laugh,” Moen told a reporter.

Which, when you get right down to it, is kind of the point of social media.

Apparently we have a tell tale knock?? Might be time to change our knocking techniques to keep them guessing?

©2016 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.