When the Wellesley police found a chipmunk caught in a tangle of wire, they wasted no time: First, they cut him free, snip snip. Then, they took to their blog to regale residents with the tale of the daring rescue.
Days later, when a 600-pound moose went careening through town, they waxed whimsical: “Moose on the Loose!”
In Brookline, when a black bear rambled across town and took up residence in a towering pine tree, the Brookline Police Department’s normally serious Twitter feed showed officers embracing their inner child. “Black bear black bear what do you see? I see Brookline police looking at me.”
As the suburbs get wilder, the police, it seems, are getting funnier.
“People don’t expect to see anything humorous from a police department. The image that a lot of people have, right or wrong, is the officer standing there at the podium reading a prepared statement about an awful incident,” said Wellesley Sergeant Scott Whittemore, of chipmunk-blog fame. “That’s not necessarily us.”
The rise of social media and the slow-but-steady eastward amble of wildlife have combined to bring out unexpected flashes of humor in local police departments.
“Police traditionally have been known as, you can’t really approach them and crack a joke, let alone them crack one back,” said Lauri Stevens, a social media strategist for law enforcement. “Social media is breaking down some of those barriers.”
Police work, of course, does not easily lend itself to humor. The sensitivity of ongoing investigations, the privacy rights of victims and suspects, and the violence with which officers so often contend are not the stuff that jokes are made of.
And the open, free-for-all culture of social media, said Stevens, runs in direct conflict with police culture, which tends to be buttoned-down and hierarchical.
But when police use social media well, she said – and when they crack a smile doing it – it can make them more effective officers.
“Social media is community policing,” said Stevens, who founded the Massachusetts-based company LAwS Communications in 2007 to help law enforcement agencies use social media. “It really facilitates that — ‘the people are the police and the police are the people’ concept.”
Stevens pointed to a now-famous zombie tweet by the Boston Police, who periodically post wry crime stories to their blog, as one of the first examples of police surprising the world with a flash of humor.
In May of 2009, the Boston Police tweeted about an officer transported to the hospital with a human bite to the arm. Someone tweeted back at them, “if that was a zombie bite, would you tell us?”
“Yes, absolutely,” came the reply from the official Boston Police twitter.
“It may seem like a small thing — ha ha, the cop is saying something funny,” said Stevens. “That’s how you get those same people to support you when something bigger happens. You talk to people on the little things and they’ll talk to you on the bigger things.”
On June 26, Boston awoke to a series of playful tweets from the Brookline Police.
“It’s back. Bear resting in a tree in south Brookline. Pine road. Officers on scene keeping quiet. Shhhh.”
“Here it is visible from Hammond street. Let’s hope he stays at rest. Don’t wake the bear.”
The tweets, said their author, Lieutenant Philip Harrington, were just supposed to keep the media from flooding the station with phone calls. But they were a hit with the public, too: The department’s Twitter account picked up about 100 new followers that day, he said.
“I think it’s an opportunity – it’s what people like,” he said. “It’s catchy. It gets you to follow the link of the story.”
Brookline police and the Environmental Police tranquilized the bear while he was in the tree and sent him to Western Massachusetts. It turned out he was the same bear who romped through Cape Cod a few weeks ago. His travels have earned him his own Twitter account – The Cape Cod Bear.
Brookline has only been tweeting for about six or seven months, Harrington said, and is usually a just-the-facts outfit. Notably absent from their following list is their felled bruin friend.
“I think there’s a time and a place for being light,” said Harrington. “I think the real purpose we want out of Twitter is getting a good message out there.”
Wellesley police started tweeting in 2007. Their Facebook page went up about a year ago.
“You go to Facebook, you go to our website, it’s not all gloom and doom,” Whittemore said. “Humor has always been a great tool to break down barriers between the public and the police.”
Whittemore, the department’s photographer, posts pictures of officers on the job almost every day. His favorite series features Officer Ron Poirier, dubbed “The Secret Farmer” in Whittemore’s play-by-play, coaxing an escaped cow home at 4:15 in the morning.
“That was one of those ones that took off like wildfire,” he said. “They were calling Ron ‘the Cow Whisperer.’”
Whittemore regularly receives calls from the media about his sometimes-goofy Web offerings. Wellesley residents recognize officers from Whittemore’s pictures on the streets.
“We want to connect to the people,” he said. “For us, that’s what community policing is all about.”