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Police are people, too: Several local departments taking to Facebook to prove it

Courtesy of Bangor Police Department
Courtesy of Bangor Police Department
Bangor police Officer David Farrar releases a mother and her eight baby ducks in a pond Saturday, May 23, 2014, after he picked up the stranded family near the Texas Roadhouse on Stillwater Avenue.
By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Police are people, too.

Bangor Police Department has garnered a lot of attention in recent months because of its efforts to remind Facebook users of that fact.

A few months ago, Sgt. Tim Cotton took over social media duties as part of his new role as public information officer for the 74-officer department. It was about this time posts on Bangor Police Department’s Facebook page shifted in tone. Instead of using the page simply to seek information from or share information with the public, they shifted the tone to be more lighthearted, in a way that might give a chuckle and, hopefully, lead people to see officers and the department in a fresh light.

“Our focus was to get the city to get to know the officers,” Cotton said. “By the end of this, I’m hoping people will have a pretty good idea of who they are. Maybe it makes us more approachable so we can help someone out.”

That effort has included posting transcripts of Q-and-A sessions with officers, which Cotton conducts in his office alongside a taxidermied male wood duck named “The Duck of Justice.” The duck has become something of a mascot for the department, with some fans calling for Duck of Justice T-shirts and bumper stickers, according to Cotton — the sales of which could be donated to charity.

“It’s ridiculous, really,” Cotton said. “But we like ridiculous sometimes.”

Cop car selfies, in which police officers take snap a picture of their vehicle in an idyllic setting framed by sunrise or sunset, also are becoming a common feature of the page.

The page doesn’t shy away from dry humor, whimsy, silliness or sarcasm.

In another posting, Officer David Farrar is pictured releasing a family of ducks from a cat crate into a pond after finding them stranded near the Texas Roadhouse. A few days earlier, a video of Officer Aaron Brooker returning an electric riding shopping cart to the Walmart parking lot, after someone attempted to drive it off the premises, was posted to the site.

“I don’t think people go to Facebook to read about crime,” Cotton said. “They visit Facebook to be entertained. We want to interject information, but Facebook isn’t a newspaper.”

People get plenty of information local media about arrests made by police, but that’s sometimes all they get to hear about what police are doing.

“We help a lot more people than we arrest,” Cotton said.

On a police officer’s average day, very little time is spent putting someone in handcuffs. One minute they might be rescuing an animal, the next hour they might be breaking up a fight or diffusing an argument between neighbors.

“We want to be approachable as a department,” Chief Mark Hathaway said. “We’re trying to enhance our connection to the community.”

The sudden shift in the attitude of the Bangor PD Facebook page caught the attention of National Public Radio, which interviewed Cotton and aired a story late last week. The page rapidly gained popularity, drawing followers from across the United States and internationally, including five people in Iran.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police maintains a list of police agencies with most Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers, categorized based on the size of the department.

Bangor, with 74 sworn officers and six more poised to go to the police academy later this summer, falls into the 50-99 sworn officer category. The list puts Bangor at sixth in the nation in terms of Facebook likes in this bracket, but the numbers are slightly out of date — Bangor has climbed to fourth the ranks, based on Facebook statistics as of Sunday afternoon.

Bangor has about 19,750 Facebook likes, which is behind only Rosenberg, Texas, with more than 68,000; Altoona, Pennsylvania, with about 30,500; and Anniston, Alabama, with about 25,000.

The ones that seem to do the best are the ones that take themselves less seriously; but the straight-forward, no frills approach also can work.

In Ellsworth, Detective Dottie Small runs the Facebook page for the 16-officer department. The page is approaching 10,000 likes, which falls closely behind leading Walker, Louisiana, on the IACP list. Ellsworth is only 800 likes shy of first place in the nation among departments with 16-25 sworn officers.

Small said the department joined Facebook in 2010 with the intent to spread information about early-morning car crashes that would affect morning commutes on busy roads and share other information at times when radio stations, newspapers and news broadcasts might not be able to help spread the word.

“Social media reaches so many people so quickly,” she said.

She stays away from “silliness” in favor of a more “conservative” approach — providing information about an accident or posting an image in hopes a resident can help identify a theft suspect.

Why have so many people followed the department?

“I think it’s because we share a lot of information and our citizens want to be involved,” Small said.

Presque Isle sits in third place, right behind Ellsworth in the 16-25 officer bracket, with about 7,300 likes. That page has been gaining popularity with posts about outdoor movie showings hosted by the police department and humorous, snide anecdotes about incidents police respond to.

For example, Chief Matthew Irwin penned, “a local motel manager called us to remove the couple in their parking lot exploring the limits of their carnal knowledge at about 2 p.m.!! Come on people, you were right there – GET A ROOM!! BTW, they were still going at it when we arrived.”

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