Like most police cars, those in Wyoming, Minn., bear the slogan, “To protect and to serve,” but it also could be “To protect and to serve up zingers on Twitter.”
Increasingly, police departments such as Wyoming’s — and the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office — are using humor to reach citizens.
The two cop shops have gained followers with posts that range from gentle ribbing of Green Bay Packers fans to virtual ride-alongs of officers on patrol who tweet as they respond to calls.
The tweets also have touched off a local equivalent of the Drake-vs.-Pusha T Twitter beef, albeit with less ego and more congenial ribbing. Chisago recently posted a gif of a tennis ball boy smashing into a wall, captioned, “Exclusive video footage of @WyomingPD running to meal break.”
Wyoming countered, “It’s conveniently also footage of @ChisagoCountySO trying to be funny.”
“That’s a little window into cop humor,” said Sgt. Kyle Puelston, one of Chisago’s frequent posters. “It’s not meant to cut each other down. Underneath this interaction, we’re showing that we’re not just out there making arrests and writing tickets. We process the world as humans, too.”
Chisago came to Twitter first, although Wyoming often rubs it in the county’s collective face that the town has more followers: about 30,000 to Chisago’s 8,300. Puelston said his department began talking about how to reach out after joining Twitter in 2014. Though not directly inspired by a police shooting and unrest in Ferguson, Mo., he said the time was right to provide citizens with insight into police work and improve its P.R.
“Our administration asked about producing virtual ride-alongs to show what it’s like to be a cop,” said Puelston, who gradually added other deputies to the Twitter squad of six.
All have a fair amount of leeway, as long as they stick within departmental guidelines, which include not endangering investigations or revealing private information.
“While we’re all motivated with the same goal, we [tweet] in different ways,” Puelston said. “But we all believe law enforcement is one of the most highly visible but least understood professions. And we want to change that.”
Wyoming has the same goal, although its approach differs. It was 2015 when the department began tweeting to residents of the town of about 8,000, mostly offering drab reminders to buckle up or watch out for an incoming thunderstorm. Folks responded with the social media equivalent of a yawn.
“Originally, we were speaking with the voice of an institution,” said Wyoming Police Chief Paul Hoppe. “We weren’t really capitalizing, as a result, on social media. So we decided to try to create something more innovative.”
The department began upping the humor ante in its Twitter posts, with targets ranging from Nickelback (they threatened to make drunken drivers listen to the oft-maligned band) to doughnuts. “Our intent was to create a personality for the police department. With that personality, we feel people are more likely to connect with us.”
Essentially, it’s: Come for the laughs, stay for the public safety warnings.
Wyoming has zoomed from a couple of hundred followers in 2015 to more than 30,000, so the tactic seems to have paid off.
Having fun with 4/20
A handful of Wyoming officers post, but Hoppe functions as their de facto editor, ensuring that the Twitter feed has a consistent personality, rather than the multiple ones on Chisago’s posts. If Wyoming’s Twitter feed were a person, it might be the narrator of “Arrested Development”: smart, sardonic and low-key.
Wyoming’s followers include several kitties, country music star Kenny Chesney and an account called @Wyomingisfake, which asserts, “We believe that the so-called state ‘Wyoming’ is not a real place.” If you’re counting, that’s Beef No. 2 for Wyoming’s police department, which often insists on its city’s superiority to the possibly fictitious state that shares its name (and that became a state 35 years after the city was settled in 1855).
Followers such as @MNCannabis and @whyamiondrugs attest to one reason why Wyoming’s account is popular: its annual posts on the unofficial marijuana holiday. Wyoming has received hundreds of likes and retweets for 4/20 Day “trap” posts, the 2017 version of which featured police hiding behind a trap baited with Doritos and other munchies. With expectations high, Hoppe said they’ve begun brainstorming for 4/20/2019.
“Those tweets were really built to bring awareness to the fact that law enforcement is a resource,” Hoppe said. “It’s not all about locking people up and issuing citations.”
The media-savvy officers argue that a bigger following helps them reach more people, and friendly social media interactions can translate into real-world friendliness. Also, a humorous post often paves the way to one that conveys serious information.
Hoppe and Puelston, however, are aware that not everyone is into it.
“There was a lot of skepticism in the department,” Puelston said. “But, over time, as we’ve had success stories, we’ve had deputies who were skeptical come on board.”
Some outside the department have criticized the posts, and media coverage of them, for missing the point on laws around marijuana.
This year, Twin Cities social media influencer David Dellanave objected via Twitter to Wyoming’s social media take on marijuana, pointing out that members of minority groups are arrested for possession more than are whites, “so there’s a wide swath of the population that wouldn’t find this joke as funny as a white millennial would.”
Hoppe defends the 4/20 tweets’ ability to reach folks who might otherwise not attend to messages from the police, adding that the department corrects mistakes (such as the time a weapons complaint turned out to be someone playing with a Nerf crossbow), but leaves the original posts up in the interest of transparency.
Experimenting with humor
Hoppe, who was honored with a 2017 innovation award from the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association for his tweets, plans to continue spreading the word. He has taught training sessions around the state, stressing that the tone of a Twitter feed needs to match the community.
“When we find something that is effective, we have a responsibility to share that,” said Hoppe, who is pleased to see police departments around the country tweeting out puns and memes, such as the advice from police in Lawrence, Kan., to “maybe ring in 2018 in sweatpants on the couch” or the police department in Eau Claire, Wis., threatening to declare a state of emergency when “The Bachelor” was pre-empted. “I don’t look at it as copying in any way.”
At this month’s Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association conference in Brainerd, most of the 60 sheriffs in attendance indicated that they are making more use of social media, said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Chiefs of Police Association. And some are experimenting with humor.
“I think the old saying is right, that dying is easy and comedy is hard,” he said.
“For those agencies that are fortunate to have police officers who are creative and funny, I think it can work well. But I also think agencies need to be careful. Humor can fall flat. People can take it the wrong way.”
One caution from Skoogman, who lauds Wyoming and Chisago’s accounts: “It’s a fine line: Let’s try to be informal, but not unprofessional.”
Getting that balance right is the trick. And it seems likely that more and more public entities will be trying to achieve that balance, up to 280 characters at a time.