Future Tense

Meme the Police

Tweets that joke about arrests and “free housing” in jail won’t make communities trust law enforcement more.

Rows of San Francisco police recruits standing at attention.
San Francisco police recruits look on during a news conference at the San Francisco Police Academy on May 15, 2018. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The rents in the Bay Area are among the highest in the nation—in Oakland, the median rent for a one-bedroom is $2,320 a month. Which is probably why the California Highway Patrol thought this tweet would be funny:

Maybe some people laughed, but I doubt it dissuaded anyone from driving under the influence.

Police use social media to send announcements of road closures, to issue reports of missing persons, to post photos of people they arrest or are looking for in relation to a crime. But law enforcement agencies also turn to social media for the same lighter fare so many of us seek on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: memes, viral videos, cute dog photos, and ironic jokes about drugs. It’s a form of community engagement.

“One way of bolstering your following and connecting with the community is through the occasional use of humor, when appropriate,” says Jaime Coffee, a public information officer with the California Highway Patrol, who noted that some of their humor on social media has made it into local news reports, boosting the visibility of their accounts. Last year, police departments across the country took part in an online lip-syncing challenge. Videos of cops in Norfolk, Virginia, singing Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” and officers in San Francisco doing a rendition of “Lights” by Journey, for example, went viral, garnering hundreds of thousands of views.

Community engagement and showing the human side of officers is a reasonable pursuit. But posts like the one by the California Highway Patrol joking about jail and gentrification in Oakland don’t always come off as funny as intended. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with a cute cop,” John Crew, a retired police practices specialist for the American Civil Liberties Union told me in an interview. “I think the reason you’re seeing attempts at social media across the country is that police agencies and the policing profession are aware that they’ve got a problem.” Part of that problem is trust: Only 44 percent of adults under the age of 35 have a great deal of confidence in the police, according to the most recent Gallup poll. But witty social media is unlikely to fix that problem, Crew says. “If they think the problem is how they’re perceived, then they think the response is to project a better image and not ‘We need more police accountability’ or ‘We have an implicit bias problem.’ They think they’re just not understood.” But if police fear they’re misunderstood, officers may not understand the communities they’re policing either.

“Please help! My name is 10 Pounds of Weed. I am lost and looking for my owner. I was sent to the wrong address yesterday in Columbus and now the police have me locked up in the evidence room. Please get me out of here soon, you will need your ID. Thanks a bunch,” reads a tweet last year from the Columbus, Indiana, Police Department. Hilarious … except nearly 6 percent of all arrests in the United States in 2017 were based on possession of marijuana. In Indiana alone in 2016 more than 10,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession and sales, according to FBI data. There’s nothing funny about being arrested, which could lead to jail, legal fees, or time away from work and family, all for possessing a substance that’s legal in 10 states. Lawrence, Kansas, police took a similar approach the year before with this tweet:

More recently, a viral Facebook photo of two Mineral Wells, Texas, police officers eating doughnuts in a field of waist-high flowers was shared more than 132,000 times. The caption reads, “Felt cute might arrest someone later idk.” The comments section on the photo morphed into a mini-contest in wry anti-police sentiment. “Felt cute, might racially profile later,” said one person. Another wrote, “Felt cute, might ruin someone’s life for possession of a plant later.” Though most of the top comments appear to be antagonistic toward the police, the post that got the most reactions—more than 8,000—was from the police department in Anchorage, Alaska, asking where the Texas cops got their doughnuts. It’s like what fast food Twitter accounts do, only instead of jokes about unhealthy food, cops are laughing about their power to put someone in jail.

Beyond coming off as tone-deaf, sometimes police department social media use can seriously backfire. In 2017, a trio of police officers in Gainesville, Florida, posted a selfie of themselves working on Hurricane Irma relief efforts. Commenters noticed that the officers were attractive, and the post went viral-viral—the Washington Post even wrote about the #HotCops. But it only took a few days for an online sleuth to unearth anti-Semitic Facebook posts by one of the officers in the photo, after which he was suspended. (Notably, one of the police pictured, Daniel Rengering, had better luck after his social media spotlight. He’s gone on to become a cover model for romance novels and was on Survivor: David vs. Goliath in the fall.)

But there are times when law enforcement social media accounts use their online mouthpieces for good—like to invite community feedback and accountability efforts. The San Francisco Police Department, for example, regularly tweets about “office hours” it holds around the city where the community is invited to share concerns, and it shares links to “know your rights” brochures. But the same SFPD account posts mug shots of arrested suspects who may eventually be found not guilty or have their charges dropped. Similarly, the Berkeley Police Department decided to post the names and faces of anti-fascist demonstrators last year after they were arrested, which compromised their privacy and put them in danger of harassment from far-right activists. “Police used to put this information out for reporters, so they’d say, ‘What’s the difference [with social media]?’ ” says Lauri Stevens, who organizes the Social Media, the Internet and Law Enforcement, or SMILE, conference, a regular training event for police departments looking to improve their use of social media. “But when you put it out on Facebook, it’s a bigger deal. People’s reputation can be damaged a lot faster and a lot harder.”

One tweet from the Illinois State Police last month included a photo with an array of different types of handcuffs. “We love jewelry. We carry it with us. We even let you wear it when we give you a free ride to jail,” it read, along with the awkward hashtags #BraceletsAreOurFavorite, #SharingIsCaring, and #SoManyChoices. The cops are probably trying to come off as funny. It’s not working.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.