The Bangor Police Department has become a public agency with national renown in the past year, as it has deployed its work of taxidermy, the “Duck of Justice,” around the city with officers on patrol and shared its adventures on the department’s Facebook page.
That Facebook page has more than 51,000 followers — Bangor’s population is about 33,000 — and is the medium of choice for the department to convey public service announcements, including to avoid parking on Central Street while crews are paving and be sure not to take home a mallard duckling as a pet; solicit crime-solving tips; share department news, such as a police sergeant’s retirement or officers’ participation in a Special Olympics torch run; and contribute quirky asides, not limited to a full-grown officer’s successful ride on a miniature pink bike with training wheels, for instance.
The reason the Bangor Police Department has become such a Facebook hit is the combination of surprise and humor. One doesn’t naturally expect his or her local police department to have such a good-natured approach to carrying out its mission, much less a compelling sense of humor and communication skills that humanize authority.
But that humorous approach doesn’t always go over well. Last week, the police department took on the subject of panhandling and sparked a dozen-person panhandling protest four days later in front of its Main Street headquarters.
Part of the problem was that the department used the same light-hearted approach to warn Bangor residents that panhandlers aren’t always truthful in their requests for help and that the best way to help out is to contribute to local nonprofit organizations instead. In the process, a public agency wrongly characterized an entire group of people, without documented proof, as a group that abuses and manipulates others as a matter of course.
“We are having big problem [sic] with panhandling in some parts of Bangor,” the post, which garnered nearly 4,100 likes, read. “The folks writing the signs are not always truthful and they are using the power of the written word and the sad face to get you to donate money to their cause.”
To be sure, the department has a point about local nonprofits being the most effective way to help those in need and address the root causes of the problem.
“The homeless often need something more than money. They need money and direction,” The Atlantic senior editor Derek Thomas wrote in that magazine in 2011.
Direction and targeted assistance — help with looking for a job or an apartment to call home — don’t come from a passer-by’s spare change. The dozen protesters who panhandled in front of police headquarters Monday implicitly admitted as much when they donated the $50 they collected to the Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance, a Bangor-based domestic violence resource agency.
But was it the department’s role — irrespective of the teasing tone — to share that nugget of advice and discourage giving to panhandlers?
After all, as the department noted, Bangor has no anti-panhandling ordinance, so panhandlers aren’t breaking the law merely by asking for money. And the department shared no specific examples in which panhandlers actually posed a danger. It wasn’t the type of public service announcement warning residents a panhandler who committed a crime was on the loose.
The Bangor Police Department likely would have provoked no such backlash if it chose to share a list of local nonprofits doing good work that could benefit from contributions. It might have provoked no backlash if it simply laid out residents’ options when approached by a panhandler — judgment-free. Where the department erred was in highlighting a completely legal behavior and passing judgment on it and the people who engage in it.