In response to community concerns, APD to retire ‘What Not To Do Wednesday’ social media campaign

Published: Feb. 19, 2021 at 6:43 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage Police Department will discontinue a long-running social media campaign it calls “What Not To Do Wednesday” in response to concerns from the community about the content and tone of the weekly Facebook posts.

The decision comes after Alaska’s News Source started asking questions about the truthfulness of the posts and their purpose earlier this month.

For more than three years, APD has posted narratives on Facebook titled “What Not To Do Wednesday” and the department has defended the posts as a lighthearted take on situations police officers experience on the job.

While the majority of comments on the posts are usually positive, some community members have expressed concerns that the posts promote harmful stereotypes, make light of serious issues facing Alaskans and serve to further a divide between citizens.

A recent post, in particular, sparked criticism. The post, dated Feb. 3, began, “Have you ever heard the saying ‘Quit while you’re ahead’? Not everyone has. Apparently.”

The post went on to describe officers responding to a fight between a man and a woman in a parking lot, dubbing them “lovebirds,” referring to the man as “Mr. Lovebird” and the woman as “his sweetie,” and describing apparent use of force by officers as ending up “in one big pile on the ground.”

The post refers to handcuffs as “‘you’ve-been-caught-knock-it-off’ bracelets” and goes on to describe the man spitting in an officer’s face.

The story ends with, “Mr. LB got to ride to jail in full restraints and a spit hood, AND he ended up with five criminal charges. Initially he was in the free and clear and THAT’S how he ended his night with us. So unnecessary.”

It’s WHAT NOT TO DO WEDNESDAY! #WNTDW Have you ever heard the saying “Quit while you’re ahead”? Not everyone has. ...

Posted by Anchorage Police Department on Wednesday, February 3, 2021

“It humiliates people, it shames people, and it divides them, and even the two people mentioned in here are two people that they take an oath to protect and serve,” said Megan Edge, a former public information officer for the Department of Corrections, who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.

Edge took to Twitter to denounce APD’s Facebook post, writing, “When @AnchoragePolice uses its power to mock members of our community they ‘protect and serve’ they feed the ill-informed narrative that good and bad is black and white. This doesn’t make us safer. This doesn’t educate us. This doesn’t reduce crime.”

In an interview, Edge discussed several ways in which she feels the post is problematic and said it comes across as mocking people experiencing one of Alaska’s most serious and prevalent issues.

“The way that it was written, it looks like it was potentially a domestic violence situation,” Edge said. “But we don’t really know, we only know what APD provided.”

A couple of hours after the department published the post, APD Chief Justin Doll presented crime data during a public meeting, sharing the cause of some of the homicides that occurred in Anchorage in 2020.

“Our homicides still remained a mix of sort of street crimes that turned violent and also some homicides involving domestic violence,” he said. “And so both of those are issues that we continue to look at things that we can do to have an impact.”

In an effort to learn more about the incident described in the Feb. 3 post, Alaska’s News Source requested the name of the individual arrested and the APD case number associated with the incident, which are both items of public information when someone is arrested.

Community Relations Specialist Cherie Zajdzinski-Shirey denied the request, saying the department does not release additional information related to “What Not To Do Wednesday” posts and has removed identifying details from the narratives in an effort to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.

“What Not to do Wednesday (WNTDW) is a weekly post the APD Community Relations Unit curates for community building and public safety messaging,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “The spirit of WNTDW is playful and humorous, and never intended to be mean-spirited. These stories are based on real events over the span of several years. We also may use a combination of different events and stories at our own discretion.”

The posts, however, are presented to the public as fact, without a disclaimer that the events might not have happened as they’re described by APD.

“They’re creating these posts based off several circumstances and they could be embellished? That’s propaganda; that’s not fact. That’s taxpayer dollars going toward the police department spewing propaganda — fictional stories that aren’t truth. You do not have the freedom to do that when you’re a police department,” Edge said. “Just because you have the power and the platform does not give you the authority to make up stories or embellish stories for the sake of advancing the image of your administration.”

APD refused multiple requests to discuss the posts in an interview, but on Feb. 10, after Alaska’s News Source continued to ask questions about the posts, APD Director of Community Relations MJ Thim sent an emailed statement referencing the post about the fighting couple that said in part, “In regard to last week’s What Not To Do Wednesday (WNTDW) post, we reviewed all the feedback (both positive and negative). Our intention is always to be playful and humorous with the message and never hurtful or disrespectful. We missed the mark with last week’s post and will do better. We apologize.”

The department’s “What Not To Do Wednesday” post on Feb. 10 was related to do’s and don’ts on Valentine’s Day and appeared to have little to do with crime or public safety.

This past weekend, Doll participated in an online forum held by the City of San Jose, where he is one of seven finalists being considered for the police chief position.

“I actually think community trust is critical to the entire police department,” Doll said. “I think a police department literally cannot function if you do not have the community’s trust and faith in what you’re doing. I think we’ve all seen different examples of that in different parts of the country.”

On Wednesday, APD released its latest “What Not To Do Wednesday” post, a story about someone they nicknamed “Mr. Beer Guzzler.”

The narrative describes an intoxicated man who allegedly stole and crashed a vehicle, then chugged a drink in a public bathroom before being arrested.

“What do you suppose the officers saw when they opened the stall door?” the post read. “Mr. BG with beer literally dripping off of his face. That’s what happens when your last act as a free person is to down a beer as quickly as possible before the police ruin your good time.”

The story ended with, “Mr. BG went to jail on a bunch of charges. He had an outstanding warrant too which we’re sure both shocks and surprises you.”

Edge again took to Twitter on Wednesday to express concerns over the department’s messaging.

According to a study from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which contracted with McDowell Group, “Alcohol misuse and dependence in Alaska has historically led, or been close to leading the nation per capita,” and alcohol addiction often intersects with crime.

“Think about every domestic violence survivor, you know, think about every person who’s had to interact with the criminal legal system, every person who has suffered a mental breakdown and, you know, had police officers respond to them instead of a behavioral health specialist, you know, these are all people that are being mocked and made fun of in these posts and whether or not that’s the intention, that’s the impact and that’s unacceptable,” Edge said.

Thursday, Thim denied another request for an interview about the posts.

Alaska’s News Source asked Thim to confirm whether the interview requests had been communicated to Doll, noting he spoke as recently as the previous weekend during the San Jose forum about how important trust between the community and the police is to the department.

In an email Friday, Thim wrote, “Yes, the Chief and many more in Command are aware of all your media inquiries.”

Thim did not provide a reason as to why Doll or anyone else at the department would not discuss APD’s public safety messaging in an on-camera conversation.

Thim did provide a lengthy statement on Friday saying that the department will be retiring “What Not To Do Wednesday” posts — a move he said the department started discussing “a few months ago,” despite official statements defending the social media campaign earlier in the month.

He said the campaign started as “an unconventional creative approach to community building” and that the feedback was “overwhelmingly positive.”

“However, a few months ago, we started a dialogue about retiring WNDTW after seeing a small increase in negative feedback. We found some people were beginning to feel hurt by the posts,” Thim wrote. “A lot has happened to our community in the last 12 months. The posts were never intended to be mean-spirited or hurtful. The intention has always been playful and humorous. A clever weekly post to educate our community about what our officers experience daily with a public safety message of what not to do. A small percentage of our community continues to feel hurt and continues to no longer find the posts as intended. Our mission includes compassion. We have a responsibility to honor it and have decided to retire WNDTW.”

Thim said APD will have more to say to the community in a final post next Wednesday.

APD has not answered questions about which employee writes the posts or responded directly to questions about how providing potentially false narratives to the community is effective public safety messaging.

Requests for public information related to the narratives in the posts have been referred to APD’s records department and a records request filed by Alaska’s News Source is pending.

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