When Detective Sgt. Alicia Steffes of the Morris Police Department was on vacation, Facebook duties were temporarily handed over to officer Justin Martin. He posted a photo of himself staring longingly at a batch of chocolate chip cookies – and then later, another photo with a filter that made him appear 30 years older.
Thus began a short-lived series known as “Officer Martin’s Random Selfies.”
For the past two years, local police have stepped up their engagement with the public on social media platforms. The posts they create on their official accounts are meant to keep the public informed and safe, but sometimes their aim is to simply entertain.
Steffes said the uptick in light-hearted posts over the past few years are meant to help familiarize the public with the officers serving in the community.
“We don’t want to appear as some stand-offish entity. We want people to see us as people,” Steffes said, “It’s the best job in the world and sometimes we can be a bit goofy and eat a lot of doughnuts just like everyone else.”
Morris Police aren’t alone in their strategy. The Minooka Police Department posted a live video Aug. 6 on Facebook that showed Mayor Pat Brennan landing Police Chief Justin Meyer into a dunk tank. The Grundy Sheriff’s Office posted an Aug. 4 photo of a dog behind the exhaust pipe of a car, giving the appearance that the canine was “undercover.”
According to a 2018 article published in Police Quarterly, 96% of U.S. police departments have adopted social media, and 94% of them are active on Facebook.
Police departments use social media to inform the public as well as receive their help in solving crimes. Social media is now such an integral part of policing that departments have started holding classes to teach officers how to effectively engage with the public. Steffes is an officer who attended the classes in Park Forrest.
He said the department has integrated many of the lessons she learned there. In 2018, the Morris Police started a social media campaign for Corn Fest in which the public was encouraged to take selfies with officers stationed around downtown.
“There were state troopers there as well and I was worried about if it would bother them, but they all loved it,” Steffes said. “They love interacting with the public.”
Morris Police will implement the strategy again this year in the coming weeks as Officers Scott Evans and Mike Bober become the new school resource officers at Morris Elementary and Morris Community High School in a campaign called #backtoschoolselfie.
“We want students to feel comfortable around their student resource officers so they can go to them for assistance if they need it,” Steffes said.
Although Steffes said she enjoys writing light-hearted posts, the police department is not mere fluff. They see themselves as having a responsibility to inform the public and try to quell the hysteria and rumors that pop up in the online ecosystem.
“There are times when someone will put a tip online that was made with good intentions but ends up being false. People share the post and start to get freaked out,” Steffes said. “We need to step in and put down the rumor without making the person that started it look bad.”
Policing is evolving with the integration of social media. Steffes said she hopes the Morris Police Facebook page will help the public see their officers less as unfeeling uniforms and more like people who live to serve and protect.