For someone who claims to know nothing about social media, Tim Cotton sure has a lot of Facebook fans. When he took over Bangor Maine Police Department Facebook page in 2014, it had less than 10,000 followers. Since then, the page has racked up nearly 173,000 “likes,” which is more than five times the population of Bangor.
Cotton’s posts, which range from retellings of some emergency calls the department receives to photos of the famed “Duck of Justice” mascot, are comedic musings often written in a stream-of-consciousness, tongue-in-cheek manner. The Sergeant—who says you can just call him Tim—began writing the type of page he would want to read about a police department, which is why he writes essays about his coworkers and makes up short stories about Mainers who break the law.
He’s also made up some laws of his own. In one viral post, he laid out the policies surrounding the “intra-home sharing of flannel shirts. Specifically, when a person takes a plaid, flannel shirt from another person in the same home” and whether it can be considered theft. (If you’re curious, let the Flannel Wearers and Owners Association of Maine explain).
“I’m not a social media guy,” Cotton said. “I’m 53 years old. But I like to tell our story.”
Boston.com spoke with Cotton about how he tells the department’s story, his sense of humor, and his trusty sidekick, the Duck of Justice.
What made you want to get into policing?
I’m not one of those people who wanted to do this my whole life. My father was a police officer when I was born and he came off the beat in 1963. I first worked in radio here in Bangor. I enjoyed my time as a radio personality, and I did news and some morning shows. I finally sought out police work later on in my life compared to most people. There was no epiphany or grand plan. I think I always had the inclination to go into it, but it just sort of worked out in the ‘80s. I was 25, and most guys want to come into police work in their early 20s. Before then I had worked in a machine shop, I worked in radio, I did some small newspaper stuff. I had some experience outside law enforcement, so I had more experience talking with people than those who become police officers right out of college. I think everything I did up to the point where I decided to join the force certainly was a positive in moving into this role.
You’re most known for your role in running the Facebook page. How did that become your project?
Most of my career I spent as a detective here. I did that for 12 years. I was doing crimes against persons and sex crimes. After a while, I realized it was a good time to make a change, so I put in for a promotion, and I was promoted to sergeant. I took over as public information officer, and part of the responsibility is the Facebook page. We had about 9,300 followers when I took it over in 2014.
When did you start to have fun with the page?
Right away. When I came into it, I looked at other police department Facebook pages. A lot of them had great information, but none of them spoke to me at all. I’ve always been a big reader of comedy, like Dave Barry and Art Buchwald, so being a guy that likes to be somewhat sarcastic and have a good time, I requested to the chief, “Can I change the tone?” I said I would like to do some writing and essays and tell the story of the Bangor Police Department in a different way. He said to be cautious and don’t go too far with some of the humor, and also don’t do politics and don’t do religion, but we didn’t want to talk about that anyways.
It’s no secret that some communities have had troubled relationships with their police departments. How do you use your page to speak to your community?
Of course there are bad cops that need to be out of the industry and who need to be out of a job. But most cops are good people. I hear cops do interviews all the time, and they say, ‘We want to show that we’re human.’ I don’t think we need to show we’re human. We need to show kindness, empathy and humor. We are human. That’s a given. I wanted to present us in a positive light and I think in these times, it doesn’t hurt to have some humor.
The main celebrity on the Facebook page is a guy known as the Duck of Justice. Tell me about him.
It used to be in the DA’s office, and I said, ‘If you ever get rid of that duck, I’d like to have it.’ The DA’s office was moving to a new location in 2011, and someone had thrown the duck in the trash can. I took the duck and, you know, it wasn’t stealing because it was in the trash and free for the taking. It was called the “Duck of Truth” at that time. If we had someone in for an interview, we would say, ‘You can’t lie in front of the duck.’ It was a great conversation starter.
When did its name change?
Later, when I took over the page, we started putting it in pictures to see if anyone would notice. People started asking, ‘What’s with the duck?’ I wouldn’t say anything about it. Then we changed the name to Duck of Justice (DOJ), which was a play on words for Department of Justice. It’s not really a riveting story, but that’s exactly what happened.
People love it, though! And they come from all over to take pictures with it. What’s that like?
There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t have at least two to five people there to take a picture with a duck. It’s an actual stuffed duck. It’s 30 years old. He gets touched so much, and it’s not good for an old taxidermy to have people’s paws all over it. We’re going to put it in a plexiglass box this fall, but it’ll always be the original Duck of Justice.
How do you think the duck will like being in a box?
The duck always has kind of a flat affect or blank look on its face, so that won’t change. We’ll pass it around when kids come in, and kids tend to want to manhandle the duck. So I think it’ll be good. And the lady at the desk, Melody, does a great job with people who come in and out. We do a guest book, and then we try to run 30-40 pictures of people each weekend. It’s fun to show where people are from. I think this year the farthest is people from France, who were just in the lobby. They all had “Duck of Justice” shirts. They’re here for a vacation in Maine and this has become kind of a vacation hotspot.
In this day and age, to have people coming to the police department for a good thing, that they’re here to see police officers and a duck, frankly, that’s pretty cool. I think it needs to happen more. We need to have interaction with people for something other than crime, addiction or mental illness. We try to embrace it and make it fun.
When was the first time you realized you might be onto something with the Facebook page? Was it with the duck?
I saw the uptick of people following the page. In an average week we pick up 500-1,500 likes or followers. We had some reactions from people right away, sending messages about how much they loved it, but it really took off when a lady out of the AP in NY followed the page and pushed it down to NPR, who published a piece on us. Then a lady wrote a great piece in the Washington Post last winter, and so those kind of things obviously draw people to the page.
Does anyone else help you manage the posting?
I write all the posts. I do a lot of it in my off time because I’m so busy during the day. Most of the writing happens early in the morning or late at night at home. Other opportunities have come out of it for me, I blog for Car Talk now about transportation-related stuff. But it’s still sarcastic, so that gives me another outlet. It’s been really nice.
It’s also been good for the agency. I get calls from different people wanting to try something new. A lot of departments have gone to humorous videos and I don’t do that because I write. We’re not actors, we’re police officers. We don’t do the dance videos, Number 1 because most of us can’t dance, and Number 2, we do something a bit different and want to focus on interesting stories and essays. I’m going to stay with the niche that works for us.
What are some of your favorite posts that you’ve written for the department?
I wrote one about a week or two ago about a pretty good day. That’s not my favorite, but that’s one of the stories I like to present. That takes some time. It’s about interaction between cops and people and the funny things we see or do. In the summer in 2014, I wrote about me driving home helping an individual get their tire changed. I like to tell the story of the people we deal with more than us. People don’t know the backstory of the person we help or arrest. I like to do it with humor, but I also like to do it with kindness.
I’ve also noticed that people message the Facebook page when they have emergencies they should be calling the police about. What do you make of this?
It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it happens late at night. Last winter, a woman sent me a message at 3 in the morning, ‘I smell propane leaking.’ That’s something you need to call about. I do read every comment and every message. I think people know that and are happy that we do, even if we can’t always respond. I had someone two weeks ago, ‘There’s someone in my yard.’ If someone’s in your backyard, don’t send us a message on Facebook! It tells me people know you’re listening, but we want them to be safe and not have a gas explosion at their home. It’s humorous later because usually nothing happens, but we’re worried someone will depend on it.
How do you feel about the fact that you have a personal fan page?
There’s not a lot of followers, there’s maybe 100 or so. But it was started by a nice, engaging lady. She said, “I’m starting a Facebook fan page because more people should know about you.” She has my picture up there, which is a little unnerving because I try to keep as low a profile on the page as possible. I write it, yes, but I like to present the stories of our officers. For a while we were writing it with nothing to sign off, and then people asked who it was so I started writing TC. People call me TC on the page and know that it’s me. I’m not a particularly attractive person. I’m not a selfies person. I write it and administer it, but it’s not about me, really.
Your sign off is “We’ll be here.” How did that come about? And what does it mean to you and the department to keep that as a constant theme in your messages?
That’s something I did early on and I thought, if I was going to sign a letter, I could write sincerely or Love Tim or Love Bangor PD or whatever your salutation, but I thought, I want to sign off so they know we’re here. That’s where we will be here came from. I want them to know you need something? Call us. We’re here. We’ll always be here.