Secret to better police relations? Lewiston: Be yourself on social media

Wed, 2016-01-13 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

By some measures, the public’s confidence in police has never been worse. As departments look for ideas to repair their relationships with the communities they serve, they may want to look to Lewiston, Maine, which has achieved success using social media to show its officers as real people.

We all know that social media can amplify bad news. Here's a valuable reminder that it can be equally powerful to spread a good message. Doesn't your police department deserve to have this tool on its side? — Jesse Berst

If public confidence in police isn’t at a crisis level yet, it’s very close. By some measures, confidence in U.S. police departments is the worst it has ever been.

There is no one easy fix, but Lewiston, Maine, has made dramatic progress by using social media to show police officers as real people. It’s resulting in tremendous positive public engagement and its program is worth serious consideration in cities large and small.

In U.S., confidence tumbles
The latest Gallup poll shows that barely one-half of Americans have confidence in police. The 52% figure ties the record low last reached 22 years ago. It also represents a 9% drop from the previous survey two years ago.

Perhaps even more troubling, 18% say they have “very little” or “no” confidence in their police departments. That’s the worst figure that Gallup has ever seen.

Officers are people too
In Lewiston, the police department is leveraging the power of social media to show officers as members of the community. They are real people — people just like the citizens they serve.

The Lewiston-Auburn Sun Journal profiled Lewiston police and several neighboring agencies and found all agencies that have tried the “real people” approach have had phenomenal success. The Facebook page for Bangor, Maine, which uses a similar approach, has 87,000 fans. And Androscoggin County tripled its following after humanizing its approach.

The key is to be authentic
We’ve all had bad days, and the police departments that are successful aren’t afraid to show them. One of Lewiston’s top posts featured an animal control call that went badly. The poor officer ended up getting sprayed in the face by a skunk. The officer shared the story and the public responded with a mixture of empathy and laughter.

"Sometimes I think we're afraid to show our human side," Lewiston police Sgt. Robert Ullrich told the paper. "I'm trying to get the word out to the troops to open up a little bit."

In Bangor, officers aren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves. On its social media channels, jokes about donuts and bacon are fair game. And when one officer was involved in a non-injury vehicle accident, his patrol car was jokingly listed for sale with “coffee stains on driver’s seat.” The post continued that the officer was working on the car with duct tape and a caulking gun. Nearly 100 people posted comments within just a few hours, many expressing gratitude the officer wasn’t hurt.

And in Androscoggin County, officers share tales of crazy things they experienced on their beats, stories they used to keep to themselves.

Building on that relationship
Once you’ve built a social media following, there are tools that can help you share critical information and get tips from the public. Council Associate Partner SunGard Public Sector has helped Johns Creek, Atlanta, leverage its social media following to solicit information on wanted suspects to providing emergency information during storms. The tool helps brings social media and smartphone apps into the platform police are using already.

But to get a real following, the Maine agencies show it helps when police officers can and are willing to show that they are people too.

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