(First published in the July 19, 2018 issue of City Pages)
There’s this popular video of lip syncing Wausau police officers. It’s an example of how departments everywhere are seriously reconnecting with their communities
Wausau Police Det. Nate Cihlar (left) and Capt. Todd Baeten produce a video about school resource officer Nick Stetzer and his K9 helper.
Wausau Police Captain Todd Baeten remembers the spring night in 2014 when a group of high school students were issued disorderly conduct citations for a Nerf gun battle that took place on the streets of Wausau. It was a harmless game among kids and toy foam dart, but to a couple who looked through their window and saw a gang of teens block off and approach a car full of more teens with guns drawn, it looked like something much worse.
Police officers, who had just responded to a suicide (the second they would respond to that night), approached the neighborhood as if there were an active shooter, Baeten says, because that’s what they were told. When officers discovered Nerf guns and realized it was just part of a game, they relaxed, had a conversation with the kids involved, and issued them disorderly conduct citations for causing the disturbance. Baeten says the situation ended with officers and students on friendly terms.
Things became much less amiable among parents and other community members once word of the incident got out, says Police Chief Ben Bliven, who was a captain at the time. Parents took to social media and news outlets to blast the police tactics used, calling officers ridiculous for treating the incident so seriously and in a potentially deadly way. It was a public relations nightmare for the department.
Bliven had just recently convinced then-Chief Jeff Hardel to start a department Facebook page. Why not take to social media to share the department’s decision-making process? Maybe parents would see why officers responded the way they did.
Those posts on the freshly launched Facebook page didn’t exactly change parents’ minds—for one, the page didn’t have nearly the 16,000+ followers it now has—but it started a dialogue with the community, and marked the beginning of a greater involvement on social media for the department.
And embracing this new approach to public relations and communication has reaped a lot more dividends than anyone expected.
One of the most important: It showed police that social media could mend community connections that many police departments have lost in recent years because of changes in policing logistics.
Once upon a time, police officers regularly “walked the beat”— meaning they patrolled an assigned route and came to know well the people and places therein. Those officers got out of their cars to talk to the people they saw on a regular basis, and when they needed the community’s help, it was easier to get information because officers already were on good terms with the people.
Departments have shifted away from that style of patrolling, Baeten says. Officers now respond to so many calls for service they can’t help but stay in their vehicles for most of the time. It’s more cost-effective logistically, but that face-to-face contact, that community building, was lost in the process.
Enter social media. Today, the Wausau Police Department has Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram accounts. It regularly posts videos produced in-house, and hopes by the end of July to hire a videographer for the sole purpose of creating videos for the department to post. One officer regularly hosts Twitter ride-alongs where he talks viewers through his night on patrol and what he’s doing in real time. Two Wausau officers posted a lip-sync battle video recently that went viral.
While some departments are still wary of the sharing nature of social media, Wausau’s PD has decided to embrace it. And some police departments are finding that a compelling, informative, and maybe even sometimes funny presence has reaped a lot of benefits.
For example, the “personality” reflected in these communiqués serve as a powerful recruiting tool. The vast majority of recent recruits to the Wausau PD told interviewers they applied because of the department’s appealing culture demonstrated through social media.
It’s not just Wausau, Baeten says. Departments around the country are embracing social media, and at a recent conference well more than half of those in attendance said they are using social media, Baeten says.
Miami’s PD has an entire social media team, with professionally produced videos shot by real film crews. Bangor, Maine’s police department has become nationally famous for its quirky, long-winded police reports that blend philosophy and minute details into a Lake Woebegone-esque narrative.
It can be a great combination of community relations. Many in law enforcement have found that social media can humanize officers to the public, but it’s also a way to important, serious information out to the public and media quickly. The spinoff of these efforts even has helped them apply for grants, with the capability to create compelling videos.
“We recognize that we have a serious job at times, but we also want the public to know we’re real people,” Baeten says. “We’re not just these stoic, jack-booted thugs who come in and quell disturbances. We’re part of the community and we can have fun with the citizens and each other, and enjoy the lighter side of things.”
The digital badge
A screen shot of officers Nick and Nate Stetzer (brothers) participating in a lip sync battle last month.
Wausau School Resource Officer Nick Stetzer first joined the police department in 2013. It had a strict policy against logging onto Facebook during work hours, and there was careful wording about what an officer could say on social media. An officer wouldn’t want to say something a defense attorney could use against them in a case. So many cops simply chose to stay off of social media.
Wausau police officers still must be careful what they say on social media, of course, but the platforms have become an integral part of how the department does business. Because he works mainly with young people, Stetzer keeps up with all the latest apps teenagers are using to communicate. He regularly uses Snapchat to connect with students. His K9 dog, Officer Badge, has his own Snapchat page and other social media channels too.
“Two hundred people will like a post from Officer Badge,” Stetzer says. The posts are in Officer Badge’s voice, which has a distinct personality. “Then the students show it to their parents, and then they add us. It’s a good way for parents to see what we’re doing and put trust in the school resource officers.”
Stetzer recently posted a lip sync challenge video featuring him and his brother, officer Nate Stetzer, singing along enthusiastically to Katy Perry’s hit song “Firework.” The video went viral, sparking 150,000 views since it was posted on June 29.
That video was fun, but garnering views and likes isn’t the only reason for such videos, or even the main ones. Most videos the police department creates also carry instructional and even financial implications.
Shortly before the Fourth of July holiday, Wausau police posted a dashcam video of a fire started by fireworks, for example. When Baeten learned of the squad video, he thought it would make the perfect teaching moment.
“You don’t just say ‘Fireworks Are Dangerous,’” Baeten says. “It’s, ‘Hey, this is what happens when things go amiss.’ It shows what we’re talking about.”
And Wausau is in the running for a WhyWeServe grant, making the top 16 nationally in the competition. The money would help adults with special needs. The top six get the funding, and Wausau’s submission was one of just a few in the top 16 with a video. Wausau officials are hopeful the video will give them an edge.
Nearly every candidate the Wausau Police Department has hired recently told interviewers that a strong reason they chose Wausau is because of the culture depicted in the videos. That recruiting power isn’t lost on the Marathon County Sheriff’s office, says Sheriff Scott Parks.
The Sheriff’s Department in 2015 partnered with students at Northcentral Technical College to create a video showing a variety of the things that the department does, from land-air-water rescues to SWAT team training. Parks narrates the video himself.
It made a huge impact on the staff to see the video, instilling pride in employees, Parks says, but the impact went beyond that. “We’ve had more interest in veteran police officers, officers who have worked for other departments, to come work for us,” Parks says. “Even when we show this at outside events, people are surprised. ‘You guys are involved in a lot of stuff’ they say.”
Parks says Facebook has become not only an important tool to communicate with the public, but also with news media organizations. Instead of worrying whether a fax or email was received, putting it on Facebook means they know everyone can access it equally.
Now the Sheriff’s Department is looking at other social media platforms to explore, such as Twitter.
Even small departments are getting in on the act. The Colby-Abbotsford Police Department, comprised of seven full-time officers (including the chief) and a full-time secretary, just started its first Facebook page about a year ago, says Chief Jason Bauer.
The biggest surprise was how much it helped officers get in contact with people—whether that be victims, witnesses or others of interest. It’s a faster than contacting someone via telephone or email. “I tell you, we’ve had good success with it,” Bauer says. “Often [we hear back] within minutes, but usually a day at most.”
Bauer approves anything non-routine, such as the Colby-Abbotsford police’s own lip sync challenge, posted on its page recently. (Despite only having a little more than 2,000 followers, the video was viewed 76,000 times.) People in the community were asking them to do it. And the effects after posting were nothing short of positive.
“We just had our Cheese Days this weekend, and it was really effective in community relations,” Bauer says. “More people came up and talked to us than usual. It kind of humanizes the officers and makes them more approachable.”
In Wausau, Baeten and Stetzer say they found that to be the case too. When officers are at events, far more people approach and talk to them now. When police started a brat-fry lunch event downtown to connect with the community, the first year in 2016 they thought maybe 150 people would show up. That year drew 800, and the following year saw more than a 1,000 flock to the 400 Block. They’re planning on even more people for this year’s event in late August.
Socializing the police
Baeten and Chief Bliven have a late morning conversation on a Friday, prior to Baeten leaving for vacation. The bulk of their conversation revolves around Facebook and what posts will go up when, what response the videos are drawing and the strategy over the weekend.
In some ways, it seems more like a newsroom than a police department. But then, communications always has been a job duty for someone, even in the smallest of police departments.
I ask Baeten if he foresees a day when the Wausau Police Department has its own social media team like Miami PD’s, and he doesn’t dismiss the idea outright. Watching Baeten work one of two department cameras designated for shooting video, while another detective conducts interviews for a video about K9 Officer Badge (the dog Stetzer takes with him to schools), it’s not hard to imagine.
It’s also not hard to imagine naysayers wondering why the police would spend so much time on videos and social media. But departments from the size of Miami’s down to Colby-Abbotsford’s are finding that social media, in a way, is like walking a new beat. A digital beat that helps police form connections, connect to the community, open a dialogue, share information and show people what it’s like to be an officer.
See for yourself
Here’s a short “Best of” list for the various local police department’s social media mentioned in the story.
Wausau PD Lip sync battle: See officers Nick and Nate Stetzer singing along to Katy Perry. The easiest way to see the video is on the Wausau PD’s Facebook page and click on the videos tab, posted June 29.
Fireworks fire squad video: This one is also on the Wausau PD’s Facebook page, posted July 3, which shows officers responding to a fire started by fireworks.
Wausau PD recruitment video: You’ll find this on the top of the video page on Wausau PD’s Facebook page. It’s remarkably well-shot and has proved to be a strong recruitment tool for Wausau’s police.
Marathon County Sheriff Department: Its time: This video will pop up as the top result if you search “for Marathon County Sheriff” on YouTube. Sheriff Scott Parks himself narrates this three minute exploration of all the things the Sheriff’s Department does.
Colby Abbotsford lip sync battle: Not to be outdone by Wausau PD, the Colby-Abbotsford Police Department posted its own lip sync battle, and added a dance routine to the mix. Find this video toward the top of the Colby-Abby PD’s Facebook page.
Wausau PD Twitter: Scroll down to June 5 to see a short squad video of a car crashing into a tree. The video was posted to demonstrate the dangers of distracted driving. “It’s a good thing there wasn’t a pedestrian or bicyclists in the path of this vehicle!” the post says.