A city police department's Facebook page may seem an unlikely place for funny stories about snowstorms and empathy for tourists, never mind outstanding writing.
But through posts, photos and videos, @BangorMainePolice carries the message of community policing to the constituents of Maine's third-largest city (population 33,000) and to the page's more than 200,000 followers throughout the U.S. and even beyond.
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Written tongue-in-cheek with gentle sarcasm and deep affection, the department's Facebook page is part police blotter, part Policing 101 and part visitor's guide. The account is maintained by Sergeant Tim Cotton, a veteran officer who became the Bangor PD's public information officer in 2014. At the time, the page had fewer than 10,000 fans.
With orders to avoid posting about religion or politics as his only restrictions, Cotton always finds something to write about, from a visit by Daisy Troop 2131, to thanking a nearby community for helping locate a disoriented man who'd gone missing, or providing advice for how to behave on St. Patrick's Day:
"Post only one photo of green beer… Make sure you have a sober driver if you decide to become mobile. … Do not tease or touch the driver while in motion."
From the beginning, Cotton saw the police department's Facebook page as a "relationship-builder," he says. "I didn't get into this to write some soft-sell, I-love-the-police thing. I've tried to create the page by writing about people and their relationships to, or with, the police. It's human interest. I think that's why people are enamored with it."
The page's unexpected appeal to Bangor residents and readers from out of state (known locally as those "from away") has particular significance given that one of Maine's primary industries is tourism. Nicknamed "Vacationland," the state's nearly 36 million visitors in 2016 helped generate $6 billion dollars in business.
"Since many people from outside of New England believe we all live like Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in 'Green Acres'… we need to keep up the charade," Cotton wrote on December 29, 2016, explaining why he illustrated the post with a cast photo from the 1970s sitcom. — Screenshot of Facebook @BangorMainePolice
A post on December 29, 2016, for instance, offered advice to the local population about how to properly represent Maine when the media interviewed them about the upcoming snowstorm:
"In order to make ourselves more interesting to the summer people, they expect a certain level of Maine 'flavor' … If you are wearing a hat with flaps (and you should be) please make sure one flap is up and the other is down. The down flap should be on the side closest to the camera … If you do not have a red-and-black plaid flapped hat, or a dog, make sure you are standing near a wood pile ... If you don’t have a woodpile, make sure you do the interview in front of small pine trees. Shorter trees make you appear taller… Never allow outsiders see you shiver. This will blow the entire plan. If you are asked whether you are cold or not, make sure you say, 'Nah, this ain't bad.' Practice the line to make it sound believable. We need them to seek you out next summer to take a selfie while they are standing next to you. You will be wicked famous as the person who was not cold."
The post has generated more than 1,000 comments and been shared over 5,000 times. In true Cotton style, real requests and advice are interspersed within the humor.
"Check on your neighbors, especially if they are homebound or elderly. Let them know that you will be around and you will be checking with them. Make sure they have your phone number, a flashlight, and a way to keep warm if the power goes out."
SOCIAL MEDIA SAVVY
Cotton readily admits to knowing little about social media best practices, which typically call for short posts and lots of photos and videos. While Cotton does include images and even an occasional video, his most popular content, the stuff that makes his readers complain when he misses a day, are his essay-length observations about everyday life.
"I wasn't a writer, or a poet, or a blogger. I had no idea about social media to begin with," Cotton says. "We had no game plan."
Despite his professed lack of knowledge, Cotton is invited to venues nationwide to talk about marketing and public relations as well as social media and community policing. His instincts have guided him to develop a surprisingly successful Facebook page.
"It's like the book Stone Soup," he says. "I have rocks, I make stone soup, and then you bring the carrots. We lure them in with this police page, but in the end we talk about kindness and being decent and keeping your hands to yourself and funny things that have happened to the cops — we also make fun of ourselves. A whole bunch of things mix up and make a good soup."
THE INGREDIENTS OF A POPULAR PAGE
Using the Bangor PD's Facebook page as a model, following are a few secrets for success:
1. TELL A STORY: After nearly 30 years as a police officer, Cotton can safely say that everyone has a story, even when it's criminal. His lifelong love of books lends itself well to the page.
"I try to think of something interesting that happened and then I try to relate it to not only the people who are involved, but to the police," he says.
Cotton can make anything a story. Holidays are ready-made, such as on April 1, 2017, when he declared, "I am not going to pull some silly April Fool's Day joke on you," and then posted the first names of everyone on the Maine-Active Arrest Warrant List for Penobscot County and asked the individuals to turn themselves in to the Bangor officer who had the highest number of outstanding arrest warrants in the department: "I think it would be really funny to have you all show up and demand he arrest you. Possibly at the same time. He only carries 4 sets of handcuffs, this will overwhelm him. I think in a good way. So the joke isn't even on you. It's on him.… If you all show up, and I mean ALL, we will stop at McDonald's on Main Street on the way to the jail and we can get milkshakes."
As Cotton's snowstorm postings show, nature is also a great conversation-starter. After a long bout of rain, sunshine on May 16, 2017, inspired Cotton to write about Maine's "17-day summer season" and the gas that turns inert after being left in lawn mowers all winter:
"Proprietors of small engine repair facilities around the region open their doors with huge smiles and soon to be filled cash boxes, awaiting the onslaught of Mainers who have never even considered using [fuel stabilizer] in the gasoline of their lawn-care equipment."
2. BE AUTHENTIC: Only about 10,000 of @BangorMainePolice's Facebook followers are local, Cotton says. "Tourists don't come to Maine for the shows. They come for the views and the lobsters," he says. "If you leave the urban centers and you drive 10 miles in any direction, you're going to run into the true Mainers. I think when people come here, they like that Paul Bunyon-esque fisherman with the beard. Visitors come to Maine for a different flavor. I try to put that flavor into the page, to let people enjoy the flavor of Maine." (Yes, moose are occasionally mentioned.)
3. AMERICANA IS APPEALING: Cotton writes about lobster. He shares the names of local bakeries. He lauds nurses, paramedics, teachers, librarians. A Mainer all his life, Cotton is inspired by rural America: "Barns and people and cows," as he puts it. When he starts to write, he says, "I picture Route 66 or the vastness of Montana — or the beauty of Maine. That's how I think of it."
4. GOOD WRITING IS GOOD: Cotton's favorite writer is New Yorker contributor and acclaimed wordsmith E.B. White, a five-decade resident of Brooklin, Maine. "He really wrote well about Maine and the people, even in, say, Charlotte's Web," Cotton says, hastening to add that he's not comparing himself to the master, only admiring his essays. "I love essays and that's what I try to write."
5. HUMOR IS HUGE: The page's authenticity provides the basis for Cotton's humor, which is essential to the popularity of his posts. Another ingredient: Cotton's humor is never mean. "My mother would be mad," he says. "I don't want to be mean. I can make fun of myself as fast as I can make fun of them." Poking fun at his own expense is essential to Cotton's humor, such as in his now-annual graduation season post:
"You might never listen to me if you ran into me at a graduation party because I would be eating too much onion dip and might (would) have residue of your aunt's ambrosia salad stuck to the lapel of my leisure suit. Google 'leisure suit,' and make sure to select Images. It will help you become more accepting of others. On second thought, you might want to Google 'ambrosia salad.'"
Still, silliness aside, Cotton's annual graduation post is funny, honest, original and apropro.
"You are ready to spread your wings. I can hear the song, 'I Believe I Can Fly.' Actually, [I] can't hear it at all because I really don't like that song. The song is overplayed and I want to be honest with you; you can't fly. The truth is, you are going to really muck around a lot. I know that you think there are all kinds of fellow youth who have it all figured out, no problems, no issues, and perfect lives. This is just not the case. The people that you believe have perfect lives are sitting around tonight thinking exactly like you are. It is a cruel joke that the human mind plays on all of us."
Media coverage from National Public Radio to The Washington Post has contributed to the page's mystique. Last year, more than 1,000 fans stopped by the Bangor PD's headquarters to have their picture taken with the Duck of Justice (DOJ), a taxidermied bird that serves as Cotton's sidekick and a department mascot. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted about it on May 20, 2017. (See above)
"We have people come to our lobby to meet cops, and they don't have one complaint or issue, they just want to meet cops," Cotton says. "It makes people feel more comfortable talking to us. It's a conversation-starter. That's what we need. We just need to have a conversation. You talk long enough, you'll find something you have in common."
Cotton's optimism and affection for his community are reflected in his reassuring tagline at the end of every post: "Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people's things alone, and be kind to one another. We will be here."
Sasha Nyary is a writer and copy editor for Mount Holyoke College and a former reporter and editor at Time Inc. Magazines.
Article published June 2017