On National Doughnut Day last week, the Kansas City Missouri Police Department's Twitter account posted a joke about cops and doughnuts.
In a photograph, several rows of yellow long johns spelled out "Caution Do Not Cross," along with the message: "For some reason our crime tape keeps disappearing."
That tweet was authored by the same woman who gifts the Metro with an annual safety message about deer in the roads.
"Your annual reminder," wrote Sarah Boyd. "Lusty deer are currently abounding on area roadways and don't care if your car gets in the way of their quest for lovin. Be aware!"
Boyd, a civilian, has run the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department’s Twitter account since its start in 2009. The oldest in the area, it's creeping up on a quarter of a million followers.
Boyd says the response to her tweets has been overwhelmingly positive, but she knows she must tread lightly, because humor and law enforcement can be a tricky combination.
"We have to be sensitive to the people who make up Kansas City, Missouri. We use humor primarily to engage, so that they're there with us when we have important information to share and also for that accessible human factor," Boyd says. "We've got to be careful not to offend people."
— Kansas City Police (@kcpolice) June 7, 2019
Your annual reminder: lusty deer are currently abounding on area roadways and don't care if your car gets in the way of their quest for lovin. Be aware!
— Kansas City Police (@kcpolice) November 8, 2017
Boyd knows that her funny tweets have farther reach than the ones that are strictly information-based. She's seen between 500 and 1,000 retweets on her deer messages.
Her skillful use of social media is part of a national trend toward humanizing law enforcement.
"From the point of law enforcement, it makes sense that they would use something like social media, something like Twitter specifically in this case, using humor to draw in the community, to show a more human side of law enforcement and essentially to try to improve police-community relations," says Raul Perez, a sociology professor at the University of La Verne in Southern California who has studied police departments' increasing use of humor.
But Perez has seen another side of police behavior on social media.
His research has mostly examined individual officers' use of humor on their private accounts and interdepartmentally for the past 40 years, not departmental social media accounts. He's read documents such as internal emails that became public after the Department of Justice and FBI investigations following incidents of police violence followed by riots or protests, as was the case in Ferguson, Missouri, five years ago.
Perez says off-color humor was quickly located in the Ferguson records, as well as any department that is investigated. By off-color he means racist, sexist, and homophobic comments that dehumanize a segment of the population.
"On the one hand, humor is being used to enhance collegiality, to build friendships, et cetera," he says of people who are of the same mindset within the departments he examined. "At the same time, through the use of ridicule, you can erode social unity, social harmony, within organizations, and in this case, between police and community."
When humor comes at the expense of people the police are supposed to be protecting and serving, he says, it amplifies mistrust with the community.
Danny Chavez, the Lenexa Police Department's Public Relations Officer, says he hopes to reach the entire community through humor, and maybe win over those who don't see law enforcement as approachable.
He uses the department's Twitter account as a way to speak directly to Lenexa.
Can we arrest these allergies?
— Lenexa Police (@LenexaPolice) June 4, 2019
"The use of Twitter is a great forum to show that human side behind the badge but also to inform the community of important information at times," Chavez says.
He began tweeting for Lenexa in 2015. He says the feed's increase in followers has been gradual and is now at 11,200 (Lenexa's population is about 53,000).
He has tried to be funny from the start, noting that these days it's easy to find viral videos of officers dancing or singing in public.
"Five or 10 years ago, the public may see that and think that's not professional for the police department to be lip syncing to a song or dancing around acting goofy," he says. "But today, I think those are exactly the kinds of things the public likes to see."
Much of police humor going bad, Perez says, comes down to laughing with someone versus laughing at someone. Chavez and Boyd are each sensitive to that.
"Our guiding principal is our mission statement: to protect and serve with integrity, honor, and professionalism," Boyd says, "and that extends to our social media as well."
Sarah Boyd, Raul Perez and Danny Chavez spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here.