If there was one detail that pushed the tale of a Monday afternoon OUI arrest in Taunton over the top, sending it rocketing around the Internet and into news reports all over the country, it was probably the lizard.
"Where does one hold a Bearded Dragon Lizard while driving you ask?" Taunton police wrote on Facebook. "Answer: In their brassiere of course!!"
The post, which detailed the police's encounter with a 39-year-old Newton woman who allegedly mowed down several mailboxes with a lizard tucked into her undergarments, quickly went viral and spawned near universal applause on social media.
But not everybody was laughing.
Police departments that use social media to better connect with the communities they serve walk a fine line, experts said, balancing the jokes and memes that are the Internet's currency against the seriousness of the circumstances often involved. For some, the Taunton post was an uproarious example that revealed a cop shop's human side. For others, it went too far, raising questions of propriety and professionalism.
"The purpose of putting this out on social media is what?" asked Tom Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant and an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College. "Embarrassment of someone and their family?"
If that was the intent, mission accomplished.
In a 585-word narrative titled "WELCOME BACK AMY," Taunton police lambasted Amy Rebello-McCarthy, a former Taunton resident whose 1999 Mercedes was found crashed in a Staple Street yard on Monday (the post incorrectly places the events on Tuesday).
With withering sarcasm — "Sorry Amy, we can't move the car right now. If we do, what will you use to hold yourself up?" — Taunton police taunted Rebello-McCarthy, who was eventually charged with drunken driving, driving to endanger, and lane violations.
"Let's recap for just a moment!!" the post continued. "Two very intoxicated people in a car crash, neither of them coherent, unsteady on their feet, slurring and drooling." The lizard, police added, faces no charges.
Taunton police Lieutenant Paul Roderick, who wrote the post, said everything he wrote was accurate.
"I didn't embellish anything. Did I put my own twist on it to put a little bit of humor on it? Yeah, I did," Roderick said. "I know there's been some critics, but I'm OK with it."
Roderick said the department's approach on Facebook emerged in part from frustration with local media. "We got to the point where we said hey, we'll do our own," he said.
And police officers tend to develop dark senses of humor, he said.
"Maybe it's cop humor. When you see tragedy over and over again, you become hardened," Roderick said.
"I think a lot of readers would be surprised at how good a sense of humor the average police officers have," said Donald Gosselin, a retired 30-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who consults with police forces in Latin America on police modernization and community policing. "Once you choose to do what she did, then it becomes a public record and you're fair game for everybody."
But Nolan said police have "an ethical responsibility that goes along with invoking the authority to arrest" that includes respecting the privacy — things like the contents of their underwear — of those being arrested.
"You frequently find people in positions that are precariously embarrassing," Nolan said. "That doesn't give law enforcement the right to be social media bullies."
Roderick said he understands the criticism, but said those taking offense likely haven't seen the full reports. And, he asked, why wouldn't he be just as qualified to report on an incident on Facebook as any newspaper or blog?
"A lot of people can relate to it. Some of them are too stuffy," Roderick said. "I don't care."
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said he rolled his eyes when he saw the post. Joking at the expense of civilians, he said, erodes the trust and confidence people have in police officers, who are obligated to treat people with dignity — even people apprehended doing embarrassing things.
"There are already civil and criminal penalties," Espinoza-Madrigal said, and stripping people of their dignity in Facebook posts is not the job of the criminal justice system.
Further, he said, "there are going to be substance or mental health issues that are involved in many of these instances that police officers are inappropriately turning into some kind of comic relief."
Attempts to reach Rebello-McCarthy were unsuccessful Thursday. According to the full police report about the incident, she told police she had taken her prescription for the anti-addiction drug methadone that morning, along with her prescription for the painkiller and seizure prevention drug gabapentin. According to the Taunton Police Department Facebook post, she'd been arraigned over 100 times in the past.
Other New England departments take a jovial approach on social media, using the site for cheeky weather warnings and enlisting their followers for help catching suspects spotted on surveillance cameras.
"I didn't want it to be just your average police blotter," said Dartmouth police Detective Kyle Costa, who runs the department's very active page. "To me it's boring and doesn't grab the attention of a huge audience."
And a huge audience can be valuable in very legitimate ways. Dartmouth has apprehended several shoplifters, burglars, and other suspects by posting surveillance photos on Facebook and asking the community for help. One recent post, calling out three alleged shoplifters who police were seeking, was signed, "Love, The Popo." The alleged shoplifters all turned themselves in, though the department received a few critical comments about its tone.
Costa said he typically plays it straight when posting arrest reports and reserves the levity for topics where spreading the word is particularly important.
"We haven't crossed the line as far as that's concerned," Costa said.
Nolan said disseminating information through social media can be useful, both for identifying suspects and for providing information and warnings to the community. But the Taunton post appeared to fall in neither category, he said.
"Don't put reptiles in your underwear? Is that the warning?" Nolan said. "I'm not seeing that."
Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.