Story by Joe Vince for Officer.com
If Americans and social media ever posted a relationship status online, it would be summed up in two words: It’s complicated.
We have a love-hate affair with platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Many find it distracting and a breeding ground for negativity. On the other hand, social media has become tightly enmeshed in our cultural fabric.
More and more police departments are recognizing how important social media is when it comes to engaging the public they serve. Law enforcement Facebook and Twitter feeds routinely use meme-able pop culture images to remind residents to keep car doors locked. During the holidays, countless videos show officers arresting Grinches as a way to warn about porch bandits.
But agencies aren’t simply using social media to keep people informed about crime scenes and wanted suspects. They’re trying to find innovative and unique ways to leverage these platforms in order to connect with their communities and humanize the officers out on the street. OFFICER Magazine spoke with three law enforcement agencies about their social media strategies and the successes they’ve encountered.
This is my passion’
When Malcolm Whitelaw began making videos for the Kansas City Police Department in Missouri, the community interaction officer had no experience as a videographer. He had been devouring YouTube posts, though, especially those generated by the Miami Police Department, and when he was asked about ways his agency could connect with the community, he knew video was the answer.
And if you ask Whiltelaw what helped him mitigate that lack of experience, he’ll tell you he chalks it up to one thing: his passion. “I felt like this was a unique space for us to really get out there and expand outside of our city and reach people all over the world,” he says. “I just feel so strongly about my department, and I felt like the world deserves to see what’s going on. The big part, I think, for me, the motivation, is the connection to the community… because we’re always stronger together than apart. Even before the videos, that was my philosophy on patrol.”
Whitelaw has been working as part of the media unit for just over a year as the director behind the KCPD Vlog. Before starting, he scoured how-to videos to learn the basics of videography. Then, he got to work. In the time he’s been managing the vlog, he’s covered different events, such as the Cub Scout bike rodeo and the department’s Youth Academy, as well as giving the public behind-the-scenes looks with ride-alongs and a spotlight on the K-9 unit.
Other videos, however, strive to put a human face on the officers serving the public. In a June 2021 post, Whitelaw talked with a sergeant about how an encounter with a homeless man inspired him to give back to the community. A more recent video had Whitelaw spending the day with School Resource Officer Cyrus Rodgers and capturing the special relationship between officer and students.
“It is the prime example of what it looks like for me, as a community officer, when the badge is just a uniform, and the person behind the badge really shines through,” he says. “This officer—his connection with the community—they love him. They treat him like family… They call him Uncle Rodgers.”
Although social media posts and viral videos can seem ephemeral, Whitelaw sees his work as having a lasting impact on future generations of Kansas City residents and police officers. In fact, he views himself as a bit of a documentarian when his out in the community with his camera.
“These videos are more than just videos to me. It’s a visual representation of where we are headed and where we have been,” Whitelaw says. “This is my passion… and I use it to capture these moments, and these things will live beyond us. We’ll go back and remember this. And we miss a lot. If you don’t document what’s going on, how can you ever really learn?”
‘Social media is a game-changer’
A strong social media presence isn’t the sole domain of large city police departments and law enforcement agencies. Situated in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio, the Guernsey County Sheriff’s Office serves a population of nearly 39,000 people. But in a short span of time, the office and its community engagement team have created posts and videos that have not only connected with residents, but also garnered the agency state and national attention.
“We’re very technologically aggressive for a county of our size,” says Lt. Dustin Best, a member of the community engagement team in charge of the agency’s website. “The sheriff has always been: Whatever we can provide to people to get the job done, whatever tools we need to do, let’s get it.”
The office’s team was created about three years ago when it was called the social media team (it changed to its current name last year). Three other members along with Best have made up the unit since its inception. They include Dispatch Supervisor Jeff Hannon, who post updates on snow levels and road closings; dispatcher Jamie Hopps, who manages the agency’s Facebook and Twitter accounts; and dispatcher Steve Schubert, who ran his own video production company for a decade and now handles the office’s videography.
“We want to show something positive about law enforcement and public safety,” says Sheriff Jeffrey D. Paden about one of the goals of his office’s social media strategy. “People use social media and it’s a great way to get information out to people and maybe tell that untold story that people don’t know about. So we all kind of collectively came together like, let’s let’s really become aggressive with our social media platforms and get the word out. And so it was a culmination of things that really kind of made us made us do what we did that.”
Before the creation of the community engagement team, Paden says the office’s social media approach was reactive, posting simply news releases to its Facebook page. Since then, the team has been meeting twice a month to discuss how to best connect and engage with county residents. And one of the cornerstones of their approach is video.
About two years ago, Schubert recorded officers participating in the Cop Lip Sync Challenge. The video not only went viral, getting hundreds of thousands of views, it also netted the agency and Schubert a few national and international awards. That was the moment the team knew they were on to something.
Other successes have followed. There were the Christmas videos, including one with a computer-generated Santa streaking across the sky. (“I had a parent call in Christmas Eve… and she said that was the fastest her kid had ever gone to bed, so she was calling to thank us,” says Hopps about one reaction to the video.) One video that touched both members of the community and the office marked the passing of a former military dog that was given to a detective following the death of his son, who was an Army K-9 handler. And then there is the series of videos that has let residents experience ride-alongs without leaving their couches.
In fact, Schubert saw firsthand how posts like the ride-alongs were not just educating the public, generating interest from the community. During one shift, he was answering a call, and as he was finishing up, the caller asked if he was the same Steve Schubert responsible for a recent ride-along video. When the dispatcher confirmed he was that Schubert, the caller responded: “I saw the video ride-along with the sheriff, and I enjoyed it. Do you know when the next one is coming out?”
Members of the team have also seen the effect their social media efforts have had on the rest of the agency. “It was International Women’s Day, and we did a spotlight on all the women deputies that are here at the office,” says Hopps. “And they actually came up to me and were like, you know, before this team was created, nobody would have even thought to ask us why we got into law enforcement. And we had a lot of good publicity from the public say, you know, my daughter wants to get in law enforcement. Can I contact someone? So it was a good for both sides.”
It’s that type of feedback that makes Best and his teammates optimistic that they’re creating a strong public image for the department, while still keeping residents informed.
“Social media is a game changer for this type of thing,” says Best. “All you really had before was newspaper and radio. And other than the radio or newspaper wanting to put out what calls you had for that day or that report you took, that was that’s pretty much all they were interested in, and we didn’t really have this opportunity to showcase what we do and all that. There wasn’t really that opportunity, and this has given us that I can tell you I’m recognized more.”
‘This is how people are communicating’
The San Diego Police Department is no stranger to social media. They’ve been using it as a tool for about a decade, according to Lt. Adam Sharki of the media unit. That time has meant the department has generated a substantial online following, and like the Guernsey County Sheriff’s Office, social media is handled by a four-person team.
“We try to remind people that public safety is everyone’s responsibility,” says Sharki about how the department to keep people updated on emergency events.
But just because the department has been in the social media game for a while doesn’t mean it’s too stubborn to learn new plays. Recently, SDPD has tried its hand with the current platform du jour, TikTok. “This is how people are communicating now, especially the younger generation,” Sharki says. “If young people are using TikTok, we’re missing an opportunity to engage with them if we don’t have a presence on platforms that are emerging.”
And Sharki has been encouraged by the initial response, pointing to a brief TikTok video that an officer posted on his first day at the academy. So far, it’s pulled in 250,000 views.
“That’s crazy,” he says. “You would never get that doing a morning spot on (local TV). You’d never get 250,000 views.”
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