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.”
The approach has helped them build an audience of 71,000 Twitter followers (the 3rd largest following among U.S. metropolitan police departments). Spangenthal-Lee was awarded a Key Award from the Washington Coalition of Open Government. The Public Affairs Department won a Public Sector Campaign of the Year from PRWeek for their efforts to educate people about legalized marijuana after the passage of I-502.
Despite the PR industry publication award, Whitcomb and Spangenthal-Lee vehemently deny the suggestions that they’re engaged in PR or that their work is some form of humor washing.
“It's a police department communication feed. There's going to be a range of information. We do really good things in this police department. There are some very terrible things that happen in this city and we do make mistakes. We try to encompass all of these things on our feed and on the blog,” said Whitcomb.
“If we just wanted to do glossy PR stuff, we wouldn't talk about when someone gets robbed, when there’s violent crime,” said Spangenthal-Lee. “We know people have questions about this department. Things have happened in the last decade and … we don't shy away from those conversations when they need to happen.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has fought for police department reform for decades. It was a letter they drafted to the Department of Justice that sparked the investigation that eventually led to the Consent Decree. Despite their longstanding criticism of SPD’s use of force in minority communities, they don’t see the public outreach efforts as a conflict with or distraction from reform.
“In general, the intention to better reach out to the public is a good one, though we can't say how effective it is,” said Doug Honig, ACLU WA’s Communications Director. “As to how it affects the reform effort, it really doesn't. Their effort to reform themselves will be judged by how they use force in the department.”
Whitcomb said the fact that the department’s uptick in humor came in the year following the Consent Decree was not intentional. “This work existed in one form even before the federal government was looking at us and it will continue through the consent decree and once we've met our responsibilities there. I think the timing is purely coincidental.”
Ultimately, the Public Affairs Office says their approach to social media and the audience it has garnered has put them in a position to be truly effective in crisis situations such as the SPU, Cafe Racer, and Seattle Parks shootings.
“People look to us in times of crisis and they don't get a dial tone. They get real time information,” said Whitcomb.
“When we have those incidents we have 71,000 people we can immediate say to, ‘Lock your doors, stay inside,’” said Spangenthal-Lee. “In those rare circumstances where we need to tell a lot of people something really quickly, I don't think we have a better tool than Twitter.”
Despite meeting their own metrics of success, the Public Affairs Office has gotten criticism from some of their colleagues at SPD. Former Public Information Officer Jeff Kappell was opposed to Operation Orange Fingers, and filed a complaint alleging his colleagues harassed him because of his viewpoints. A subsequent investigation found that was not the case and Kappell was transferred to another department.
Whitcomb says among the rest of their colleagues, reactions are “a mix.”
The department does seem to have the support of new Chief of Police Kathleen O’Toole. “We're very happy to say that some of the values she has in regards to openness and transparency and communication are similar to ours. We feel very lucky to be able to continue forward with our engagement strategies.”
It’s far too soon to tell what sort of impact Ferguson will have on policing, social media and public engagement, but Whitcomb and his team have already waded into the discussion. They’ve engaged with dozens of people on Twitter who’ve asked questions about how SPD would respond to a similar situation, freedom to assemble, and more. They preemptively released information about military surplus equipment SPD received from the Department of Defense.
“Ferguson was a big conversation for us. It touches on a lot of different things that relate to this department one way or another, “said Spangenthal-Lee. “Things like this allow us to take a look at ourselves as a department and reevaluate.”