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Basketball, Marijuana And Poetry: These Police Tweet More Than Crime Alerts

Police officers in Lawrence, Kan. watch thunderstorms move past the city in 2008.
Orlin Wagner
Police officers in Lawrence, Kan. watch thunderstorms move past the city in 2008.

Friday is April 20, a day that some people celebrate by smoking marijuana. The Police Department in Lawrence, Kan., is preparing for this week's pot holiday by sending safety tips via their official Twitter account, run by officer Drew Fennelly.

Those tweets have gotten thousands of likes, and they aren't the only ones. Fennelly says that using humor serves a purpose: The funnier the tweet, the more likely the department's updates reach a wider audience.

When Fennelly was a neighborhood resource officer in 2014, the Lawrence Police had a Facebook account with only 1,500 likes, and he was searching for a way the department could better engage with their community.

But when he first pitched the Twitter account in 2015, Fennelly says he had to get approval for almost everything he posted.

"Initially, our tweets were bad, so we didn't have much of a following in the beginning," he says. "[There were] lots of hashtags, lots of '@ mentions,' really boring stuff."

Then in March 2016, he tweeted about the University of Kansas loss to Villanova University in the NCAA college basketball tournament. Fennelly says it was the first humorous tweet he tried in an attempt to increase their engagement.

A sports editor at The Kansas City Star retweeted it, and Fennelly says it became the account's first tweet with national reach.

"It ended up getting a couple thousand likes, over 1,000 retweets," he says.

Now, along with crime alerts and incident updates, Fennelly gets to have some fun. More importantly, he says, Twitter is a way to engage with the community the police department serves.

"Being in a university town, we have a really high population of people age 18 to 25, and so I really saw Twitter as an opportunity to reach those people," Fennelly says. "And that was a demographic that we were kind of missing as a police department prior to that."

He says he and his colleagues know that Lawrence residents are reading the posts because they come up to them on the street to talk about them.

"I feel like their familiarity with what we're putting out on Twitter makes them feel a personal connection to an officer that they come across in the community ... they can go up to an officer and say 'Hey, just want to say — love your Twitter account, think it's great,' " Fennelly says. "For officers to be able to have that interaction, I think that's the best thing that we can hope for in our community policing efforts."

The Lawrence Police Department's Twitter account now has more than 100,000 followers — more people than the most recent census estimate for the city it serves.

Mallory Yu and Renita Jablonski produced and edited the audio story. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.