After resolving a hostage situation in March 2017, the Seattle Police Department held two press conferences.
The first was at the crime scene, where officers arrested a man with a knife yelling at police to shoot him after two hours of negotiations. The second was two days later — at an Ask Me Anything on Reddit.
There, Seattle police’s chief hostage negotiator had more time and was able to explain why half the city’s streets were shut down for hours, along with other interesting questions, like “Would you rather negotiate with a horse who is holding 100 ducks hostage, or with 100 ducks who are holding one horse hostage?”
(He opted for the one horse, noting that the single animal would be much easier to convince.)
That AMA marked a new form of police community outreach as departments across the US are getting hip to Reddit’s unprecedented reach as a platform. Some of the biggest police departments in the nation prefer local subreddits to Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. The Seattle police have had a Reddit account since 2013, and New York and Los Angeles Police Departments both joined Reddit this January.
“We jump on Reddit because we know we’re going to get tough questions and try to answer those,” said Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, Seattle’s senior communications manager. “There’s good engagement there, and it can be focused.”
A Reddit spokeswoman said the company helped the NYPD and the LAPD join Reddit. Reddit started talking to the LAPD after working with the Los Angeles mayor’s office, and the NYPD reached out after an introduction from the LAPD’s communications team.
Police departments being on social media is not new — most law enforcement agencies now have a Twitter account or a Facebook page to post public service announcements and answer questions for the community.
Social media has proven to be a double-edged sword for police, who find that while they have a new way to reach the public, not everyone online is a fan of law enforcement. When the NYPD tried a “#myNYPD” Twitter campaign in 2014, hundreds of photos of police violence flooded their feed instead.
The backlash was so bad that the hashtag spread to the LAPD, too.
Reaching an audience on Reddit is difficult, with an audience that values authenticity. Morgan Freeman’s AmA backfired after milquetoast answers had readers questioning whether they were actually speaking with the actor or his publicist instead.
With police, it’s even more difficult, according to Matthew Rejis, the LAPD’s strategic communication officer.
“That is an uphill battle that law enforcement is facing, because people’s natural instinct when you say something on social media is it’s some form of propaganda,” he said.
But Reddit offers features for police departments that other social networks don’t, like a downvote system that essentially hides their worst posts. While Twitter has an informal “ratio” structure, its most controversial posts are still amplified by the engagement.
Staying on community subreddits also keeps their posts limited to people within the community, as outsiders aren’t regularly visiting the New York or Los Angeles subreddits.
Police have found that Reddit’s biggest benefit, however, is the community — which they’ve found is more engaged than the people on Twitter and Facebook.
“It’s a different audience with different people, who are very engaged, very passionate,” said Yael Bar-tur, the NYPD’s director of social media and digital strategy. “Reddit has its unique culture and you have to be able to speak the language a little bit.”
It hasn’t exactly been a warm welcome for the NYPD on the r/NYC subreddit.
It was Chinese New Year shortly after Bar-tur created the account, and their second post was wishing a happy Lunar New Year to the subreddit. The top comment wrote, “12 possible Zodiac animals and the NYPD social media manager makes these cops do a video for year of the pigs.”
In early March, a post criticized the department over undercover officers ticketing people for subway fare evasion when the toll machines were broken. When Bar-tur responded to the thread, the NYPD’s post received over 100 downvotes and more criticism.
Bar-tur said she doesn’t mind the criticism — she’s on Reddit frequently in her free time and knows people can be negative. What’s valuable to her about Reddit is knowing what the community is interested in, and how they can help.
“People were upset about the subway post,” Bar-tur said. “People can downvote it if they don’t like it, that’s completely fair. But we did our duty to the community.”
The official account also helped someone report hate symbol graffiti, and others find their local precinct. That’s important engagement, she said.
It’s been two months since the NYPD joined and people have become more receptive over time. There were several comments defending the NYPD after a post questioned why police were on the subreddit.
The LAPD had a similar experience after joining Reddit, said Rejis, who has been using the website since 2010. He said he understands that people don’t like the LAPD and has been using Reddit to get feedback on how the police department can improve.
“There were some posts asking, ‘Why is the LAPD on here? Reddit’s gone to crap,'” Rejis said. “If it was 100 percent positive, I probably would’ve been skeptical, like something was being filtered.”
People are also suspicious of police lurking on social media. Facebook had to stop undercover officers from friending and spying on suspects in Memphis.
Reddit has its problems with fostering online hate communities, banning subreddits like r/Incel for inciting violence against women and the r/WatchPeopleDie subreddit for posting videos of the New Zealand mass shooting.
Seattle and Los Angeles’ police departments said they’re not on Reddit to monitor for hateful communities, but would investigate if posts were reported to them.
“We have investigated hate speech promoted online through social media, but it’s brought to us by concerned community members,” said Sean Whitcomb, the Seattle police’s public affairs director.
Police have found that being on Reddit does more good than harm for their departments.
After the 2016 US presidential election, Seattle’s police department hosted its first AmA with a bias crimes detective, to answer questions about hate crimes.
“The outcome of the election concerned a lot of people in our immigrant community,” Whitcomb said. “We don’t always have the best relationship, and they don’t always have the best opinion of us, so for us, this was an opportunity to say we’re here to serve you.”
The NYPD constantly posts wanted posters and warnings about criminals on the loose, as well as replying to threads where people said they were attacked in the city. Posting on Reddit hasn’t helped the NYPD solve any crimes yet, but it’s definitely helped with its community outreach, Bar-tur said.
The LAPD’s Rejis, meanwhile, believes that the collective Reddit base could help solve crimes one day.
Reddit users once notoriously misidentified the Boston bomber and prompted a witch hunt for an innocent man, but Rejis still has hope for the local Los Angeles subreddit.
“If someone can give a tip through Reddit, which I think is just a matter of time until that happens, that’s something we’re working towards,” he said.
Rejis said the LAPD is planning on hosting a social media summit this year, with a mass invitation to every police department in California. He wants Reddit’s staff to speak and explain why the social network is so helpful for police.
So get ready to see more police in your local subreddit — they’re perfectly happy to hear all your criticisms and weird questions you wouldn’t directly say to an officer.