In 2013, at Seattle’s annual stoner gathering, HempFest, the Seattle Police Department’s Public Affairs Office made national headlines with Operation Orange Fingers, doling out bags of Doritos to festival goers. Affixed to the package of each was a sticker explaining the dos and don’ts of Washington’s newly-legalized marijuana industry.
For weeks afterward, the Doritos were the conversational subject of choice around Seattle offices and at happy hours and parties. Reactions were of course mixed, but most leaned towards how unexpectedly cool the SPD was.
I found myself arguing to the contrary.
The Doritos experiment came on the heels of years of excessive force used by the SPD in local communities; a pattern that culminated in a formal investigation by the Department of Justice and a Consent Decree requiring reform. Though the DOJ did "not make a finding that SPD engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing," their investigation raised "serious concerns on this issue."
Operation Orange Fingers felt at best like a distraction from SPD’s very serious and ongoing problems, at worst an attempt at “humor washing.”
Still, a year later I’d largely relegated the issue to the back of my mind. That is until Ferguson.
People around the world watched live as a militarized police force threatened and arrested protestors, journalists, and probably some criminals, deploying tear gas and firing rubber bullets.
With it came real-time social media conversations about police militarization, institutionalized racism, excessive police violence and more.
As police and social media once again dominated water-cooler conversations, the public image the Seattle Police Department has built through its Twitter, Facebook and blog took center again.
The SPD Public Affairs office is headed by Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, a veteran officer who’s been with SPD for 17 years on the street and as Public Affairs Director since 2008. The department is staffed by three sworn officers — Detective Reneé Witt, Drew Fowler and Patrick Michaud — and one non-sworn employee, Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, a former crime reporter who handles much of the tweeting and blogging.
According to Whitcomb, their use of social media exemplifies new technology, but not a change in the expectations and function of the job.
“Every police department has a responsibility to engage the community they serve,” said Whitcomb. “What used to be officers working the beat, stopping in at the corner store or park and having conversations with people has evolved to a team of individuals behind desks at headquarters having real time, digital conversations with our residents.”
The work centers on disseminating and, in Spangethal-Lee’s words, demystifying police work to the broader public. It’s a mix of putting out crime reports and public safety information and responding to dozens of daily questions they receive about everything from “Why are there cop cars on my street?” to “Any updates about this case?” to “Can I kayak through the Montlake Cut?”
In addition to their main Twitter account, @SeattlePD, the department operates a Facebook page, the SPD Blotter blog, Get Your Bike Back and Get Your Car Back Twitter accounts and 51 Tweets by Beat Twitter accounts that breakout information by neighborhood beats. All their mediums employ a conversational, casual style.
“By being honest and forthcoming, we believe we're building community trust,” said Whitcomb. “We didn't just start tweeting yesterday. There is a familiarity with the product that comes out of our office and it's comfortable.”
“Official without being officious is [our] tagline,” said Spangenthal-Lee. “We've been a lot more successful than some departments have because we're engaging with people the way human beings on the Internet do. We're also at the drop of a hat very serious about things. It's a tightrope walk all the time.”
That shift towards engaging like a human can be credited in large part to Spangenthal-Lee’s hire in March 2012. He was given a wide berth to treat the work less with the sterility of government communications and more with the conversational style, jokes and memes more successfully used on social media. When he came onboard, he said, he wanted to ensure, “we had a blog and Twitter feed that I would want to read.”
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