Police culture is complex. Social media is complex. Free speech is complex.
What do you get when you mix 'em all together? Anonymous Cop Twitter.
At least that's the name I've given to the phenomenon of first responders who cloak their true identities in the social and digital space. It extends beyond any one platform, and takes on many varieties. I first experienced it may years ago in the semi-private comments section of the PoliceOne website. And yet, it still fascinates me.
Users hide themselves for a variety of reasons: compliance with agency social media policy; fear of retaliation; protection of self & family from bad guys; limitless trolling.
But at the same time, users identify within the profession through: iconography; pseudonyms; avatars; badge numbers in screen names; profiles dotted with intra-cultural metaphors and slangs.
Anonymous Cop Twitter includes patrol cops, detectives, SWAT operators, dispatchers, sergeants...active and retired...rookie and veteran...actual and wannabes. They all share their thoughts, wacky calls, complaints of the job, and of course...the way the world should be!
The musings are creative, cutting, hysterical, honest, brutal, embarrassing, self-depreciating, arrogant, frustrated, unbecoming, proud, exaggerated, rhetorical, and sarcastic. They give a raw glimpse into policing and the mindset of those who bravely accept the challenge to keep our streets safe.
The dark humor, often misunderstood and under-appreciated, is a coping mechanism in response to the everyday stresses of this job...only matched by that of an emergency room nurse (I married one!) and frequently eclipsed by a coroner.
Anonymous Cop Twitter does have an underbelly. Users often unmask themselves to peers - whether face-to-face or through private/direct messaging. So in many ways, we know who is behind the logos and cryptic handles. We unconditionally respect the anonymity - and resort to personal attacks without "out"ing them. It's a weird but necessary courtesy.
There are aspects of Anonymous Cop Twitter that frustrate me. The users do not always portray a professional or respectful tone to the job, our citizens, and our bosses. We often "take the bait" with trolls and critics online. And we eat our own. The shroud of anonymity creates an environment of near complete unaccountability for what one says. You can say anything with few repercussions.
Social media has opened the door to our police station locker room. It's a stream of 140-character soundbites from a new type of COPS reality show. It's a virtual ride along on #TeamNightShift with those who would otherwise not be allowed to address the press.But maybe the locker room door should remain shut. Maybe we need to remind ourselves that what we say, even behind the mystifying avatar, has an effect on how the public views us. Maybe we could use a dose of restraint...even when that story would be funny as hell. (It usually is!)
Or just maybe we need more of Anonymous Cop Twitter to let people know what really goes on in the bizarre, dangerous, sad world we've come to know all too well.
Anonymous Cop Twitter: I love you guys and gals. I just don't always agree with you. We're still good, right?
Lou Hayes, Jr. is a full time police officer...and spends a lot of time studying adaptive problem-solving, human performance under stress, critical decision-making, and emotional intelligence. He does his damnedest to put it to practice in every aspect of his life.