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Camden County, N.J., Police Use TikTok to Connect With Youth

In March, the Camden County Police Department launched a TikTok page that has received almost 4 million views. Police Chief Gabe Rodriguez said the account has boosted both officer moral and public relations.

(TNS) — Camden went viral in 2020.

Videos of a Black Lives Matter protest — where Camden County police officers marched alongside residents following the murder of George Floyd — garnered hundreds of thousands of views when the department and a city official posted it on Twitter and Facebook. Pop star Nick Jonas, “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver and former President Barrack Obama were among those who praised the city’s display of unity.

But having another positive viral moment wasn’t the impetus for the police department’s new TikTok account.

“It was really good to hear people acknowledging what we were doing last year but my thought behind starting a TikTok had nothing to do with that,” said Police Chief Gabe Rodriguez. “This was about connecting.”

“When I took the big seat in January,” he continued, in reference to taking over as chief earlier this year, “I thought, ‘How do we connect with the future of Camden?’”

While the police department already had Facebook and Instagram accounts where it shared positive content prior to Floyd’s murder, Rodriguez thought TikTok — which is one of the most used apps among youth — would provide a unique opportunity. The video-sharing app — which has prompted numerous dance challenges since its launch in 2016 — allows users to share content lasting from 15 seconds to three minutes.

“I haven’t quite gotten a dance down right yet, but I’m working on it,” said Rodriguez, laughing.

The TikTok page — the only one run by a law enforcement agency in New Jersey as far as Rodriguez is aware — has garnered nearly 21,000 followers, more than 803,000 likes and over 3.9 million views since launching in March.

While it may be a first for the Garden State, police having a presence on TikTok is not unheard of. Philadelphia police officers grabbed attention on the platform in 2019. And a quick search of “#coptok” on TikTok will pull up an array of content from across the country.

The Camden police department’s most popular TikTok so far, with 2.4 million views, features local activist Pamela Grayson-Baltimore interacting with a virtual de-escalation simulator used to train officers on how to avoid use of force while responding to a scene.

“I had no clue the numbers were like that until someone brought it to my attention,” said Baltimore, known as “Ms. Pam” in the city. “In a day and time when social media is how the young people communicate, you have to have something on there. Something empowering that can educate people but also show a different side of policing.”

Baltimore said her favorite post by Camden police so far features a female police officer, who she has gotten to calling the “TikTok officer,” and two dance students from the Dare 2 Dance school showing off their moves.

The department has also highlighted a gifting event for a 4-year-old shooting survivor, a Pride Month flag raising and a local reading program.

“We wear a uniform but we’re not robots,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about humanizing police officers. You can walk up to us and go, ‘I saw you in that video.’”

The police department emphasized that the TikTok account is just one step of many taken to complement their community policing efforts. Others aspects that play a major role, Rodriguez said, are hiring more officers from the city, promoting Hispanic and Black officers to reflect local demographics and increasing response times through new technology tools.

On another coast, Sgt. Ariel Savage, with the San Diego Police Department’s media services unit, said launching their own TikTok account in October 2019 has meant learning lessons along the way.

“We’ve learned to keep it very simple and not do too much out of our wheelhouse,” said Savage, noting the account has over 32,000 followers. “We look at what’s trending and see how we can create positive community-based [content].”

That content has included an officer facing off against a resident in a foot race, a glance at the department’s dispatch division and funny holiday skits. Savage said the department has gotten a great response from videos that highlight its K-9 units, dogs that work alongside officers.

“The response overall has been really positive but those usually do very well for us, obviously a lot of people love animals. In one case a canine was unfortunately stabbed by a subject, so people loved to track the recovery,” Savage said.

Rodriguez said he “highly recommends” more departments consider launching TikTok accounts like San Diego and Camden.

“It’s great for morale within the police department because many of our officers are young and have TikTok accounts of their own and enjoy that,” he said. “And what better way to connect with youth than to invite them to be part of a TikTok video with us?”

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.