To get more than 260,000-plus followers on Facebook is no small feat — especially when you’re in a small Maine city with a population of just over 30,000, and you are the police department.
Thanks to the efforts of Bangor police Lt. Tim Cotton, the department’s page has become a social media phenomenon. He tells his readers that most police encounters could be avoided if everyone followed their mother’s advice: “Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people’s things alone, and be kind to one another.”
Cotton spends most of his on-shift hours leading the department’s Criminal Investigation Division, otherwise known as the detective division. But during his off hours, he’s the administrator of the Facebook page, which has drawn in followers from coast to coast and around the world.
“People like the writing and they enjoy the humorous aspects of what we present,” he says.
In lieu of the typical alerts about hazardous road conditions, traffic snarls or mugshots, Cotton offers humor. A lifelong admirer of syndicated humorists like Dave Barry and Art Buchwald, Cotton has found a way to reverse what he saw as a decline in the level of communication between the department and public.
In addition to posting tidbits about oddball crimes or pictures of vehicles that have fled the scene of an accident, Cotton regularly posts his “Got Warrants?” feature, a parody of the “Got Milk” ad campaign, about miscreants who are on the lam.
When Cotton learned recently that the youth of America were eating laundry detergent pods on camera to become famous on the internet, Cotton added one more piece of advice to the page: “Don’t eat soap.”
As for advice on how other departments might make their social media more popular?
“Well we do get a lot of calls from other agencies that want to try kind of the same thing and they’ll say, ‘What’s your policy on this?’” Cotton says. “Well we’re careful, no politics, no religion, we don’t try to hurt anyone’s feelings, we make sure we talk about kindness. As a matter of fact, I learned as I went because I don’t know anything about it. I absolutely am not a social media genius — this was just doing it differently than everyone else.”
To some degree, Cotton’s social media efforts are a modernized version of what reporters at the Bangor Daily News were doing back to the 1970s and 1980s in a section called the Night Police Beat. It was a column of vignettes that were frequently humorous and sometimes sarcastic, says Peter Taber of Searsport, who penned hundreds of beats when he reported for the BDN in 40 years ago.
“We did the writing equivalent of ad-libbing and turning some peculiarity in the evening, some interview with a cop that wasn’t the legalistic, someone’s been arrested, a crime has been committed,” he says.
Cotton says that even though media platforms have morphed dramatically in the age of the internet, people still like to know about the officers who serve their community and about some of the stories that don’t appear in the papers as much any more.
“But truthfully, people get their news in all kinds of different ways now,” he says. “They have the ability to pick how they get their news, and I think the newspapers per se have maybe shriveled up the amount of information they want from the police department — they want the bigger stories.”
And Cotton’s online approach is also drawing more people into the station, thanks in part to a cast-off taxidermied wood duck from the district attorney’s office who has been dubbed the Duck of Justice, or DOJ. He says visitors routinely drop by to have their pictures taken with the Facebook fowl that has its own permanent roost.
Cotton, meanwhile, is hoping to build on the department’s social media success. On Monday he posted that the page is “trying to reach the magic friends number of 287,364. We have to do this by spring. Whenever that is.”