After a somber rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” newly minted Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina kicked off the annual SMILEcon — an acronym for the Social Media Internet Law Enforcement conference — with a timely dad joke.
“My name is Jorge,” Colina said to the crowd of about 150 cops, public information officers, and law enforcement officials on Monday. “Which sounds a lot like ‘Yanny.’” The audience roared with laughter.
That knee-slapper set the tone for the next two days at SMILEcon, held this year in the ballroom of the Kimpton EPIC hotel in downtown Miami. Presenters discussed the do’s and don’ts of cops using social media, like how to go viral in a good way, and what to do if you go viral in a bad way. Selfies, memes, vlogs, and other internet fare seeped into instructions for how cops can improve relations with the public, especially millennials. Snapchat or Instagram? Facebook or Twitter? YouTube or Vimeo?
Even the crossword puzzle on the back of SMILEcon’s program stuck to the theme: The clue for question #1 Down was “connect with 18-29 year-olds here.” (The answer was “Instagram.”) But it wasn’t all fun and memes: The last two days of the conference, closed to press, were dedicated to topics like how to infiltrate secret Facebook groups, coordinating social media response during a crisis, and tracking suspects on the dark web.
Although public confidence in police has returned to historical averages in America, law enforcement is still losing support among young people, Hispanics, and liberals. In the eight years since SMILEcon started running, for example, confidence in law enforcement among people 18-34 has plummeted by more than 10 percent. Instances of police brutality, including several high-profile shootings of black men, have largely fueled that decline.
Yet the majority of police officers resent the idea of a wider cultural problem in law enforcement. So it’s perhaps no surprise that one of the overarching messages of SMILEcon was how law enforcement can use social media campaigns, like the #HotCop assisting with Hurricane Irma relief, to counter bad press.
“We never understood that others tell our stories. But the only people who experience what we do is us,” Colina told SMILEcon’s audience. “There’s nothing more powerful than telling our story. Humanize the police officer.”
“HURRICANE IRMA #HOTCOPS PLOT TWISTS”
One of the officers on the front line of that fight is Sgt. Ben Tobias of the Gainesville Police Department, which oversees a liberal student enclave in the middle of red Florida. He took the stage on Monday afternoon to share his experiences of going viral not once, not twice, but four times in recent years — and talk about what happened after.
One of those viral moments included the infamous #HotCop photo. Tobias had solicited photos from Gainesville officers assisting with Hurricane Irma relief efforts and posted one on the department’s social media feeds, where several commenters noticed the officers were, well, hot.
As Tobias described what happened, bullet points in his presentation highlighted the basics:
- “Took a couple of days to even catch on”
- “I had posted a bunch of photos during that time”
- “When it DID take off … OH BOY”
The Gainesville PD’s social feeds got flooded with comments, many of a graphic sexual nature. “I can’t believe how many women are objectifying these poor, fine, young, strong, handsome, brave, sexy, delicious, virile, ovulation-inducing, mouth-watering, beefy,” one commenter wrote. “…. I can’t remember where I was going with this.”
Tobias ran with the attention and posted a follow-up. “We are dying with the comments. You’ve actually made our chief blush with some of them,” he wrote on the Department’s Facebook page. “Please do not call 9-1-1 and request this group respond to your ‘incident.’”
But the attention quickly backfired when an online sleuth unearthed some old, anti-Semitic Facebook posts by Michael Hamill, one of the officers pictured. “Stupid people annoy me. Put them in an oven and deal with them the Hitler way. Haha,” Hamill wrote on Facebook in 2011.
“HURRICANE IRMA #HOTCOPS PLOT TWISTS,” another one of Tobias’s slides read. “Reminder that ANYTHING, including negative comments, becomes viral when in a viral wave.”
Hamill ultimately resigned amid an internal affairs investigation. And though the Gainesville Police Department was forced to delete the original #HotCop picture, it capitalized on the momentum anyway by putting out a calendar featuring pictures of brooding, shirtless officers (notably absent Hamill) to raise money for an initiative promoting police-community relations.
For officer Daniel Rengering, the newfound fame didn’t stop there: He’s reportedly taken a leave of absence from the department to join the next season of “Survivor.”
Sgt. Misael Reyes and Officer Nick Perez, both from the Miami Police Department, also gave a seminar on “strategic vlogging” as a way to teach the public about the day-to-day activities of policing. The duo showcased their slickly produced YouTube channel series, which has over 140,000 subscribers and all the trappings of a reality TV show.
“We have to fight the misinformation that’s been put out there by the media,” Reyes told VICE News.
One video from 2016, for example, focused on the preparations for Miami’s annual “Ultra Festival.” Scenes of festivalgoers twirling glow sticks while EDM blares in the background are interspersed with Perez — a part-time DJ and self-described graduate of “YouTube University” — interviewing different members of law enforcement, all of whom appear to be having a great time.
Another, more recent video from “Season 3,” entitled “Big Bust on Patrol,” shows long cinematic scenes of Perez driving through Miami or putting on a bulletproof vest while hip-hop plays in the background. He also interviews various officers at crime scenes around the city. One officer, rocking a pair of reflective Oakley sunglasses, opens the trunk of a red Maserati to reveal a cache of firearms discovered during patrol.
When Reyes and Perez first brought the idea of a vlog to their chief in 2016, they said, he went for it immediately. At the time, Miami Police Department had been battling a rash of negative publicity. For example, federal officials concluded in 2013 that Miami cops routinely engaged in excessive force, which led to a high rate of police shootings: seven young black men were killed in eight months in 2011.
Meanwhile, former Miami Police Union president Lt. Javier Ortiz, who was suspended last year for harassing a woman on Facebook, had been making headlines with controversial public statements. He called Tamir Rice — the unarmed, 12-year-old victim of a fatal police shooting in a Cleveland park — “a thug” and urged a boycott of Beyoncé’s concert in Miami following her “anti-police” performance at the Super Bowl that year.
But the purpose of the vlog wasn’t to improve public trust, according to Reyes, but to reclaim the Miami Police Department’s narrative and counter misinformation the media had fed to the public.
“If CNN gets there first, then it’s over,” he joked to VICE News. “We get to break the news to our citizens, to our residents. It shouldn’t take a reporter to break the news.”
He said he generally views the public as divided into three camps: people who hate cops, people who love cops, and people in the middle. It’s those in the middle who Reyes hopes to reach with the videos. “It’s given us a voice, allowed us to become part of the conversation,” he said.
Cops from around the world
It wasn’t just U.S. law enforcement attending this year’s SMILEcon. Delegates came all the way from Panama, the United Kingdom, and even Turks and Caicos, where some were repeat attendees. “If you’ve been to a SMILE conference before, then you’re a SMILE Head,” chirped organizer Lauri Stevens over the mic as she hoisted a box of rum given to her by the officers from Turks and Caicos. “Don’t forget to tweet and tag SMILEcon,” she added.
Recently retired Kerry Blakeman, former Chief Inspector of West Midland Police Department which encompasses the city of Birmingham and hosted its own SMILE conference in 2014 — gave several lectures about the PR benefits of social media.
Blakeman, a recipient of the UK Police Twitter Award and 2015’s SMILE “Top Cop” winner, was inspired to start livestreaming his department’s activities when he saw his daughter watching a live YouTube broadcast from Harry Styles, a former member of the beloved boy band One Direction.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t we do that?’” Blakeman said. Recently, Blakeman’s even ventured into 360-degree video.
Blakeman also joined Officer Dave Wardell of the Hertfordshire Constabulary, U.K., and Finn, a German Shepherd police dog and the protagonist of the book, “Fabulous Finn: The Brave Police Dog Who Came Back from the Brink.”
Wardell and Finn were stabbed in 2016 by a teenager while they were responding to reports of a robbery. Finn was left with potentially life-threatening injuries, and Wardell shared regular updates about the dog’s road to recovery online, inspiring a viral social media campaign advocating for better protections for service animals.
Wardell spent much of the conference signing copies of the Finn book, which turned the shepherd into such a celebrity that the department was able to crowdfund the dog’s travel costs to Miami.
“We have control over what’s going out,” Seb Ellis, former officer with Kingston Police Department in London and founder of a social media consulting agency, told SMILEcon in another presentation. “It’s our message, our words.”
But given the cultural and procedural differences between U.K. and U.S. policing, social media might not be the panacea attendees at this year’s conference hope. Police in the U.K. killed seven people in 2017 (four of whom were engaged in terror attacks) compared to American police who killed nearly 1,000. And most officers in the U.K. don’t carry guns unless they’re in a specialized firearms unit.
“We learn from each other,” Blakeman said. “They’re up against different challenges,” Ellis added.