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Tweets inspired by Friends, GoT: Meet the cops playing it cool on social media

Special cells within metro police departments are reaching out to a new generation with humour, on everything from drugs to traffic rules.

india Updated: Jun 27, 2017 16:50 IST
Madhusree Ghosh
Madhusree Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Mumbai police,Bengaluru city police,Pune police
(Clockwise from top left) Posts by the Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Mumbai police departments, using cheeky memes and artful imagery to spread awareness and reach out.

“Give me a minute and a topic, and I’m sure I can come up with a tongue-in-cheek one-liner,” says MS Nagendra Kumar, laughing. The Bengaluru deputy police commissioner has had plenty of practice.

His department has lately drawn on the Netflix hit Narcos, to post an anti-drug warning to dealers; used a Game of Thrones meme to remind people not to default on loans, and even had a witty retort to a troll go viral.

And the Bengaluru police aren’t the only ones using trendy memes, cheeky gifs and witty one-liners to get their message across to a new generation.

In Mumbai, the police admitted there were two questions they couldn’t answer: ‘Why did Katappa kill Bahubali?’ and ‘Why don’t people follow traffic rules?’ Kolkata surprised everyone when they used the famous Beatles Abbey Road picture to say if the pop icons can use a zebra crossing, so can you.

Allahabad drew on Sholay and compared Thakur’s line ‘Woh haat nahi phansi ka fanda hain (Those aren’t arms, they’re the noose of the gallows)’ to warn against drink-driving. The Pune police promoted road safety with a ‘Selfie with Yamraj’ campaign. And Hyderbad ran a ‘Don’t be an Angry Bird’ campaign against road rage

What they’re going for, they say, is humour that will make you think. “We realise that today’s youngsters are more likely to respond to a meme or a GIF online than offline posters or banners, so we had to make our online presence felt,” says Deven Bharti, Mumbai’s joint commissioner of police for law and order.

This Game of Thrones-inspired meme by the Bengaluru police warned its Twitter followers not to default on their loans.

A flasher is swept up in Mumbai
  • The Mumbai police Twitter account has more than 3 million followers.
  • ‘A girl once tweeted to us about a flasher, while commuting,’ says joint commissioner of police Deven Bharti.
  • ‘Because of her timely tweet, we nabbed the guy. She thanked us on social media. It was very rewarding for the cops who helped her.’

Nothing connects people more than humour, he adds. “As we target the youth of the city, we try to make the tweets as engaging and funny as possible.”

In Bengaluru, there are in-house contests to see who can come up with the wittiest slogan or sassiest post. “But we also make clear that we are here to engage, not entertain,” said a senior officer.

“We definitely want recall value from our posts and messages, but we don’t want to be reduced to a page famous for churning out funny memes. After the laughter, we want the message to stay with the youngster, so they think about issues like drink-driving, speeding and drug use.”

Team social

While most of the current generation of cops were on social media personally, using the same platforms to interact with the public required sensitisation and orientation.

“It’s one thing to share or comment on a meme. But when you’re representing a police department, the same message takes on another level of importance. We had to be really careful and self-aware about the image we were creating online, and make sure it matched the image we wished to project offline,” says Sudhir Hiremath, the deputy commissioner of police, Pune.

Some police departments — Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Allahabad, for example — now have in-house social media teams.

In Bengaluru, the in-house social media team consists of 10 constables and officers who work in shifts to manage the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat handles of the department.

“We keep an eye on what’s in the news — a drug haul, drink-driving, helmets — and draw on that for our campaigns,” says Kumar.

Angry Bird helped the Hyderabad police fight road rage via Facebook.
Stop, say Irrfan Khan and Drake via AIB
  • The Bengaluru city police Twitter handle has 768,220 followers.
  • They recently used an AIB meme of Irrfan Khan impersonating Drake to urge motorists to stop at red lights.

In Allahabad, a three-member team handles only social media.

“We went through extensive training in Lucknow. We still attend workshops and training sessions to stay updated on trends,” says constable and social media handler Rohit Bhartiya, 31.

Hyderabad has social media as a kind of beat, and even calls the cops who work it ‘e-cops’. Each police station has at least two, while the control room has 15.

“They are selected based on their technical knowledge and expertise in using social media. They operate round the clock, in shifts, under the supervision of an inspector-rank officer,” says G Anitha, a sub-inspector with the Hyderabad police IT wing.

Some police departments, like those in Mumbai and Pune, also get outside help for the creative content. Regardless of how it works, though, they all stressed that they keep a close watch on what’s being published online.

“The commissioner of police and I sit with our policemen to decide what subjects we should talk about on social media,” says Bharti. “The subjects are mainly core policing issues such as traffic violations, narcotics, child labour and street crime. We take care to ensure that the subject is serious, even if the approach and message take on a lighter tone.”

Among the consultants on board is Sunchika Pandey, 35, a former crime journalist who works with the Mumbai, Thane and Pune police departments on their social media messages.

The Kolkata police offer a cheeky reminder on helmets.
Who’s your buddy?
  • The Pune City police Buddy Cop WhatsApp group helps track crimes against women in the IT sector.
  • Here, one cop is assigned to a group of 50 women via WhatsApp.
  • In case of a crime involving themselves or others, members can drop their buddy cop a message and seek help.
  • Since March, 25 such WhatsApp groups have been set up.
  • The project has won the FICCI Smart Policing Award 2017.

“For me, crime reporting was always about educating people about their safety and making them aware of the dangers around them,” Pandey says. “Social media is just a wider platform on which to continue doing that. What surprise me when I first began two years ago was that some of the senior officers are grammar nerds too!”

We also have Pankaj Ghode, a cyber expert, to assist us on website development, interactive platforms and activities, adds Sudhir Hiremath, deputy commissioner of police, Pune.

The flip side

There are two immediate areas of concern when it comes to the police and social media: First, they are only reaching a thin slice of the population and should not lose sight of that, as senior cop Meeran Borwankar puts it. Second, they will need to be wary of overstepping, especially when it comes to responding to ‘alerts’, identifying fake news and dealing with trolls.

Ashish Mishra, who handles social media in Allahabad, says their cops are trained to take what they can from negative comments, use it to learn or improve, but refrain from reacting.

“On the whole it’s a very positive thing to have the police reaching out to a new generation in new ways,” says Borwankar, director-general of the Bureau of Police Research and Development.

“Being on social media makes the police more accessible. Police work is so full of stress that we too need some humour in our lives. But we mustn’t forget that social media reaches just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a huge population in the country that is not online and can’t reach us directly that way. So our efforts have to continue to go much beyond that.”

YP Singh, IPS officer turned criminal lawyer, goes a step further. “Making witty memes and spreading social awareness is the job of the public information department of the government of every state,” he says. “The police need to focus on what they are supposed to do, which is take seriously the grievances of the public and solve crime. Direct communication with the public via platforms such as Twitter should not become a PR exercise. The social media accounts of police departments should be used to issue news and alerts, say in cases of a bomb blast or if there is a suspect on the loose.”

A Mumbai Police post uses an iconic scene from Sholay to warn people against cyber crime.
#SafeDriveSavesLife in Kolkata
  • The Kolkata police Twitter account has 450,831 followers.
  • “A popular campaign was #SafeDriveSavesLife. People praised the popular culture references we used,” says Bivas Chatterjee.
  • Chatterjee, a public prosecutor, conducts social media training and sensisitisation workshops for the city police.

Going the extra mile

For now, social media is leading to more direct communication between citizen and law-enforcement. The Hyderabad police now have a mobile app called Hawk Eye, which has had over 3.5 lakh downloads since its launch in December 2014.

“The app can be used to send a message, photo or video clip of any irregularity or crime,” says Anitha. “The message is relayed to the nearest police station or patrol team in real time and an action taken report is sent to the original sender too.”

The Bengaluru police are using image-based campaigns on WhatsApp to reach smartphone users who may not be on social media networks. “We believe WhatsApp forwards are a good way to put technology to its best use,” says Kumar. “We also want to change the notion that cops are to be feared. We want to tell people that we can laugh with you, connect with you and also bring you on to the right track.”

(With inputs from Anesha George in Bengaluru, Farhan Ahmed Siddiqui in Allahabad, Srinivasa Rao Apparasu in Hyderabad and Sumanta Ray Chaudhuri in Kolkata)

First Published: Jun 16, 2017 23:13 IST