“I actually thought it was the best commercial of the Super Bowl, to be honest,” Wyoming Police Chief Paul Hoppe said, referencing the Wyoming Police Department’s now-famous February tweet threatening to punish drunken drivers by playing the Justin Bieber T-Mobile commercial during their ride to jail. “It reminded me of some of the dance moves I had back in the day.”
“Which were probably awful,” Wyoming Police officer Tony Zerwas retorted.
That sharp wit and banter is what fills the small police station in Wyoming on a daily basis, so it comes as no surprise that the Wyoming Police Department has garnered international attention for its Twitter page, a collaboration of wit and humor that helps drive home important messages.
“I was watching the Super Bowl with a group of folks and everyone was like, ‘That commercial sucked,’” Zerwas said, adding it was then he recognized an opportunity to remind everyone not to drink and drive. “If we would’ve simply said ‘Don’t drink and drive, get a sober ride home,’ they wouldn’t have listened.” It didn’t take long for the tweet to go viral.
“I was getting calls coming in from all across the country and Europe about that post,” said Hoppe, who mentioned that tweet also garnered attention on “Ellen,” “The Today Show,” The Washington Post and even Rolling Stone.
This April, the Police Department was recognized with the Excellence in Innovation award for its outstanding work in use of social media with policing from the Minnesota Police Chiefs Association, an honor that is voted on by police chiefs from across the state.
“When you’re issued an award by your peers, I think that speaks volumes of the impact that you’re having to the industry as whole, the profession as the whole,” Hoppe said.
But the impact of their Twitter page wasn’t something the department just stumbled onto. Just a month after starting with the department two years ago, Zerwas approached Hoppe about the idea of starting a Twitter account and using social media as a tool to help police, something he’d spent much of his time researching during his undergraduate degree in police science and graduate degree in public safety administration at St. Mary’s University – Twin Cities.
“I’ve always had a passion for social media,” Zerwas said. “I think it’s a really fun way to connect with people. People want to connect with people. People don’t want to connect with entities. So they may have a really hard time connecting with (the badge), but what’s behind it, they’re cool, they want to connect with that. So I had that understanding based on my research and then took that to Chief, and we sat down and have been working on it ever since.”
The department had been trying to utilize its Facebook page, but according to Hoppe, it just wasn’t getting the attention he’d been hoping for.
“We were trying to be like every other institution. We were pushing institutional information,” he explained. “Tony actually came to me one day and said that he wanted to do Twitter.”
At the time, Hoppe didn’t really know what Twitter was, though he knew his teenage children used it.
“I just knew there was a little blue bird that flew around,” he said. Even so, Hoppe began working with Zerwas to lay the groundwork for Twitter engagement.
“It originally started between Tony and I having some in-depth conversations of, ‘Do we want to go on this platform, how will it work, what are the guidelines, what are the boundaries to it, and if we are going to do it, we want to be the best at it,’” Hoppe said.
Zerwas and Hoppe said it was a trial and error process in the beginning, but between digging into analytics for the Twitter page and constant conversations about the content, they started to see what worked and then replicated those posts. Almost two years after launching the account, they now boast nearly 17,000 followers – more than twice as many followers as there are people who live in Wyoming – and average 3 to 4 million views per month.
Despite the department’s virtual fame, Zerwas and Hoppe emphasized that it isn’t just about getting noticed; it’s about administering important content that otherwise wouldn’t get heard and building a relationship with the community in a unique way. Their most popular twitter engagement is a virtual ride along, a live hashtag event in which police detail what goes on during their shift.
“Traditionally in the past, we’ve used brochures to pass out information, and our brochures hang in our lobbies until someone picks them up,” Hoppe said. “Social media exists in everybody’s pocket or in their hand all day long, so we’ve just looked for a unique and unusual way to push our traditional public safety messages. We’re doing it in such a witty fashion that sometimes people don’t even realize that we’re giving them the traditional public safety announcements that they traditionally won’t even listen to.”
The department’s focus has always been engaging with their community in Wyoming. Since they started using Twitter, many of Wyoming’s residents have come out in support of their police, approaching many of the officers on duty and thanking them and recognizing the work they have done on Twitter.
“Policing this town in the last year and a half, not one officer hasn’t had multiple people come up to them and say in person, ‘We like what are you doing on Twitter,’” Zerwas said.
Hoppe, who said he has seen a great increase in those positive interactions while out in the public, credits the support to those tweets.
“We are kind of peeling back the outer layer of the onion and showing people what we do every single day,” he said. “I think that’s part of what we’ve been able to do, is just humanize the men and women that wear the uniform and demonstrate that we’re normal, average everyday people with just a unique job, and we’re truly engaged and embedded in our communities as guardians and not warriors.”
That community engagement, both in person and online, has proved effective in other ways, too, like getting leads on current cases.The department has a 70 to 80 percent tip-to-solved-crime rate when it asks for the public’s help in a case over social media, and it attributes that number to the exposure of the Twitter account.
“If we’re not socially engaging with our community and nobody follows us (when) we request that information, we have very few people participating,” Hoppe said. “So part of what we do is market that exposure so that when we have these relay issues, and we have content and problems and crimes that we’re trying to solve, there’s actually somebody watching it, and that’s the connection we’re trying to make.”
The department’s use of Twitter is considered so innovative and groundbreaking that it has received calls from all across the country, as well as within the state, to speak on the use of social media in policing. Zerwas recently traveled to Colorado, where he spoke about social media at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Public Information Officer Conference, and he has been asked to do more seminars in Minnesota and Florida later this year. Hoppe has traveled across the state to talk with other departments about his team’s Twitter page, something he emphasizes is a team effort that requires a high level of trust but is exponentially helpful in officers’ effectiveness in their jobs. Hoppe said he often receives requests for the department’s guidelines, which detail ethical and legal boundaries for the tweets. Their big-picture message of what he and Zerwas try to tell other officers is simply to have fun.
And fun is what they’re having — not just with their community, but with police departments across the state, including a playful rivalry with Chisago City.
“They’re definitely like a sibling,” Hoppe said. “I think that that’s part of what people like to see is that we’re human and we do have rivalries like everybody else.”
“We’re definitely the better sibling,” joked Zerwas.
To Hoppe, using Twitter and being funny may seem like a simply a unique way to get police work done, but he said its integration into the department has made a positive change in the way officers police.
“It has changed tremendously. I think the thing that you see changing most is the connection we have with our community,” Hoppe said. “I think that’s why people resonate with us, because we do kind of remind them of that one family member who’s just a little bit funny and quick-witted.”
The Wyoming Police Department is currently considering the use of other social media platforms, though it isn’t disclosing which ones those might be. You can find them on Facebook (facebook.com/wyomingmnpolice) and Twitter (@wyomingpd).