Police using social media to help build trust in community

Policing and community engagement are another aspect of life that’s changing during the pandemic. So one small police department in Minnesota is finding ways to build trust with the community through social media.

Wyoming Police Chief Paul Hoppe says it was events like the LA riots after Rodney King in the 90s, the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and recently, George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis that inspired the public outreach.

“Every time that we get these kind of major events that happen in our communities, the confidence for law enforcement really starts to fall,” said Hoppe.

Because it’s hard for some to see the person behind the uniform and the badge, police officers in Wyoming have actively worked to build more trust with the public, without even having to meet face-to-face.

“We created the #VRA, here in Wyoming. It’s been adopted across the nation, as the ‘virtual ride-along,’” said Hoppe. “We post from traffic stops to major felony crimes, to their lunch spilling the passenger seat of the squad car as they had to take off in a hurry, to doing the monotony of police reports… just like somebody was sitting next to us in a squad car, and give them the virtual experience of doing a ride-along from the comfort of their couch and the convenience of their time.”

Just this month, a person called 911 after finding an "unidentified object" in the backyard that suspiciously looked like a person’s finger or a toe.

“I get there and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if this is a toe or finger or not,’ but I ended bringing it over to the hospital for them to take a peek at it, and it ended up being wood,” said Wyoming Officer Matt Paavola.

While it was a false alarm for law enforcement, it made for a good story that Paavola later posted about on Twitter and Facebook to show a part of his day-to-day work.

“If you look at all of the things that we do, they’re relative to basically a couple of components: they’re either a public safety announcement, just done with some creativity; they’re crime alerts, just done with memes that grab your attention; or, they’re just activities happening in our community that we want to share with our public,” said Hoppe.

Hoppe says sticking to those themes has not only built a better bond with the community during the pandemic and unrest, but it’s also helped their officers solve more crimes because of tips posted on social media.

“Certainly, we put some stuff out there and it can have an edge to it. But I think one of the things that’s really successful is about our page is that we keep it relatively unfiltered,” said Hoppe.

Hoppe has trained other law enforcement agencies in the state and country on their best practices, and it’s that work that’s helped his own officers too.

“The community has been great — just stopping in and saying ‘thank you,’ and bringing us gifts. And it’s the Facebook and the twitter stuff that helps keep that bond in place,” said Paavola.