I think most of us have a bit of an odd relationship with the police. We are very happy to see them when our car is stolen but significantly less happy when they appear behind our car when we happened to fail to stop at a stop sign. We want their help when we need it but are considerably less pleased when they are writing us a ticket for our own misbehaviour. And to be honest to a large degree I think few of us really understand the nature of their job and have a tendency to see the uniform and not the individual doing a difficult job.I wrote a blog post in 2011 about an initiative that I felt was helping to bridge the divide between the public and police. It was a bold project, because it was risky in some regards. It was all about police officers in Edmonton using Twitter and the impact I believed it was having on their relationship with the community.
It is very easy to dehumanize individuals like police officers, and that dehumanization is a key factor in the difficulties of developing community policing. The concept of using Twitter by officers was initially envisioned as a recruitment tool but I think it went much further than that. Cops on Twitter, at least the ones in Edmonton, developed a relationship with the Twitter community, sharing snippets of their jobs and daily routine. The officers ceased to be the uniforms and began to be a lot more just like you and I.Some of the tweets they sent were sobering – tales of pulling over drivers too drunk to stand, let alone be behind the wheel. But there were funny tweets, too, 140 characters detailing seeing a guy in a bunny costume on Whyte Avenue long after Halloween had passed. The officers were sharing not just the tragic things they saw, not just reports of icy roads or drunk drivers, but some of the amusing things they encountered, too. They were open and interactive. They responded to the public, answered questions and became quite utterly human.
There is no doubt there was some risk. It is a fine line to dance, social media and professionalism, but the officers danced it well and they began to develop a solid presence on Twitter. I had always respected police officers, of course, always known they simply did a difficult job, but even I realized they were changing the way I interacted with them, feeling much more at ease the next time an officer pulled me over because of a damaged tail light. She was no longer a uniform – she was a person doing her job, and at the end of that traffic stop I thanked her for all she does for our community.So last week when my name came up during “cop chat” I was delighted to learn that two of the Edmonton officers on Twitter – Constable Power and Constable Spiker – had recently been recognized for outstanding service based on engagement, and that my 2011 blog post had been submitted as part of their nomination package. That my blog post could have contributed to their recognition made me smile that entire evening, because it is far too rare that we recognize police officers and celebrate them.
It has been awhile since I wrote that blog post but I stand behind it and all I said, perhaps even more so now. I have seen how the Edmonton police officers have integrated in the social media world of Twitter and how that has truly impacted their interaction with members of their community. I have also seen other police forces try to embrace the medium but fail because they are too afraid of the potential harm to take the risk, preferring instead to tweet as an entity but not individuals (and failing to develop those crucial personal connections that foster the humanization of the officers). My respect for the individual officers on Twitter has grown immensely as I have seen them continue to take the risk, knowing they are developing those connections and forging a new path for their colleagues by taking community policing into the sometimes tricky world of social media.Today I want to congratulate Constables Power and Spiker on their award, as well as thank them and all their colleagues who do a very difficult job every single day. I believe they and the other officers on Twitter are pioneers of a sort who are blazing a trail in community policing, and that is worthy of recognition. I am still smiling, too, as the thought that this humble little blog could contribute to their recognition pleases me beyond words, and so I sit here today quite content, knowing that sometimes something I have written does things and goes places I have never expected or anticipated., like into the world of cop chat.