One afternoon a few weeks into August, the Needham, MA Facebook page started buzzing over a post about an SUV parked on a sidewalk, blocking access for pedestrians. There were the usual lamentations about how this shouldn’t happen, the how-dare-they’s. Then someone suggested tagging the Needham Police Department.
That brought it before the eyes of Officer Joe Brienze, who now handles the department’s social media accounts. Brienze, posting from the official police account, replied that in situations like this residents can call police dispatch and get someone over there right away. He also immediately called another officer, noted the location of the problem, and had him check it out.
To Brienze, that’s an example of technology helping police to do their job, and he’d love to see more situations like it.
In the past few years, relations between police and their local communities have suffered as a series of nationally publicized incidents have eroded trust and understanding between departments and the people they protect. Locally, police morale has suffered in recent years: in its report as part of the Needham Resilience Network’s State of Needham report, police Chief John Schlittler spoke of the national context and hoped for “Recognition that the NPD, like the rest of Needham, has had a tough few years — and police everywhere have taken a hit to morale.”
Against that backdrop, the police have been looking for new ways to connect with residents, and show a more human side to what the department does.
Brienze said he first saw the potential almost immediately after he started helping with the socials in May. A 7-year-old girl living in town had just completed her final round of chemotherapy, and police escorted her home from the hospital. The department put together a post with pictures, more than they had usually done for a similar event which might have gone unpromoted in the past. The post received hundreds of likes and many comments, all of them supportive.
“The responses were completely positive. There wasn’t a bit of negativity in it, and it really opened our eyes about how we can let the community know about a lot of the things we’re doing. So we thought, maybe that’s something we should continue to do,” Brienze said.
Over the last four months, Needham police have dramatically expanded their social media presence, using the technology as a two-way conduit to both learn about potential issues in town and to tell the public what the department is doing. Since May, police said they have gone from reaching roughly 19,000 people on Facebook every three months to more than 233,000, and from 2,000 to 12,000 on Instagram. Several posts have gone viral, with one of their regular traffic-tip posts about vehicle registration receiving well over 1,000 Facebook comments — not all of them civil, it should be noted — and a number of others spreading far and wide.
“We do make jokes about it,” Brienze said. “Every once in a while my deputy will come in and say like, “Are we going viral again?’ Because it was. It was great for the outreach.”
Chief John Schlittler said much of the credit goes to Brienze, who took over the department’s socials in May. Police were looking to grow their presence in general, but Brienze, who is the department’s school resource officer and is known around town as the handler for the police dog Officer Rocket, has overseen an expansion in content and a change in tone. It’s now more conversational and casual, showing a side of the police beyond arrest statistics.
“It helps us in presenting the messages we’re trying to get out there,” Schlittler said. “I mean, we do that in a way that we’re never going to be confrontational or anything like that on the platform. And so yeah, the whole idea behind it was to get certain messages out there and make sure that the right message is out there.”
That has manifested itself in their regular Traffic Tip Tuesday posts, in messages about high-profile incidents, department news about events and promotions, getting-to-know-you posts about individual officers, and explanations of training procedures or policies.
“For the most part, it’s more just education,” Brienze said. “People are so busy with their lives every day. So we try to remind people about a traffic tip that they might have forgotten. Or someplace where the speed limit might be coming up or, for instance, we’re doing school zone stuff for the first day of school. It’s just about education and outreach.”
But his regular presence online has turned social media channels into a two-way street, where individuals who might not feel comfortable calling police dispatch to report a problem instead regularly send direct messages to the department’s account, pointing out problems or asking for help. Brienze then redirects the issue to the right officer and tries to get the issue solved. He responds during the day and checks in on his own time at night as well, trying to provide a consistent presence when possible. He says he’s clear the account is not staffed 24/7, but sometimes other officers will let him know that a particular issue is getting a lot of comments, and he’ll jump in to address it regardless of the timing.
The interactions are not always positive. Brienze tries to strike the balance between friendly and casual and representing the authority of the police department. That’s not always easy when posters are upset or angry or not inclined to be charitable toward his replies.
“I’m not trying to be like, snarky and rude about it,” he said. “I’m not going to lie to you. I’ll do my best to give an honest answer … but that doesn’t always work.”
There are many posters who want to debate Brienze about the validity of laws they dislike, or discuss why they find a particular situation unfair.
He tries to remember to keep a positive tone and to remind himself that most of the things posters are unhappy about are far, far outside his purview.
“I don’t make the laws,” Brienze said. “I try to tell people that if you’re upset with that law, talk to your legislators, they’re the ones that make it, who go up to the State House every year and debate this stuff. I think it works for some people, and for others it doesn’t work. There’s always a group that no matter what you say, they’ll never agree with you, but you truly do your best.”
Needham resident Daniel Barbarisi is a senior editor at The Athletic and a non-fiction author.