Operation water gun: Police use fun approach with a serious side

A summertime water gun fight in 2016 helped set the tone for the Dixon Police Department’s new Twitter account. Dixon Police officers engaged groups of kids around the northern Illinois town in running water gun fights. Parents and caregivers were encouraged to invite DPD officers to show up at places around town with water guns, where officers “battled” kids armed with water guns and water balloons. The posts of the battles went viral on the department’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and helped build interest and momentum for the department’s social media efforts, led by Patrol Sergeant Lincoln Sharp and Officer Ryan West.

DIXON, Ill. — If it sounds like the Dixon Police Department was taking summertime fun seriously, that is because they were. And they had the viral social media posts to show for it.

“The water-gun fight posts were huge,” said Lincoln Sharp, DPD patrol sergeant, of the first Facebook and Twitter posts in 2016 about the summertime water wars, where parents and caregivers could post on the department’s Twitter account to summon the police water-gun team to engage kids in watery battles around Dixon.

A focus on funny with a side of serious is the approach that Sharp and Officer Ryan West have taken with the police department’s social media.

The approach has been more than successful in showing the humorous — and human — side of the men and women behind the badges.

Sharp started with the department in 2008, under then-Chief Dan Langloss. Langloss was succeeded by current Chief Steven Howell.

At the time, the department had a Facebook page, but Sharp added a Twitter account to the DPD’s social media in 2014.

He said he was inspired by what some larger departments were doing on Twitter and other social media.

“I was thinking of how can we connect with the community in a way that humanizes us, with issues that everybody can relate to, not everything to do with police,” he said.

Sharp got the nod from Langloss and the DPD Twitter page was off and running. Sharp also maintained the DPD’s Facebook page and the popularity of the two social media accounts exploded.

“It took off and it was super popular. It was the humor. That’s what people were there for and that’s what people still want to see,” Sharp said.

The August 2016 Twitter posts on the water-gun battles went viral. The water-gun battles started with officers posing with Super Soaker water guns, challenging Dixon kids to water-gun fights.

If parents or caregivers wanted their kids to participate, they were asked to tag Dixon Police in Tweets, along with their “weapon of choice,” water guns or water balloons.

“The first couple of times we did it, we did it while we were working and that was a challenge. We’d handle a call and then go to the water-gun fights. Then we had guys donating their time, coming in on their own time, to do the water-gun fights,” Sharp said.

The posts of the officers in uniform, with their water guns, doing battle with Dixon youngsters, went viral and made national media.

One of the challenges of maintaining the popularity of the Dixon Police Department’s social media accounts is encouraging officers to participate in video and photo posts and to involve as many officers as possible in the social media efforts. “Testing the sergeant’s patience in 3 … 2 … 1” was the caption on this Facebook post from Jan. 19.

Sharp said he tries to focus on posting humorous takes on the daily work of the Dixon officers, whether that’s running radar on a busy Dixon street, rounding up errant wildlife that have invaded a residence or throwing shade at the Dixon City Fire Department, with whom the DPD shares a building.

“It is just whatever happened throughout the day and it made it easy if you saw someone driving down the middle of the road with a mattress on top of their vehicle,” he said.

“I also tied in a lot of stuff that was trending on social media that was funny, not police-related, but that you could put a police twist on.”

West became part of the DPD social media team when he was hired. When Sharp was promoted to patrol sergeant, West stepped up to continue the social media work.

He started the DPD YouTube channel and, in January, West and Officer Matt Coffey started a podcast where officers talk about their jobs and DPD procedures, as well as their lives outside of work.

“Since I have assumed different duties, Officer West has really stepped up and has an important role in our social media, as well,” Sharp said.

“He kept up with what I started and then created stuff of his own, so we are really trying to cover every platform we can.”

Sharp said police agencies especially walk a fine line on social media.

“You have to be careful and know how far you can go. It takes life experience and experience on the job to know when something might be a little too far, so you don’t post it,” he said. “It’s knowing your people and your audience and what’s funny and not.”

Sharp said another key to successfully navigating social media is to balance the good with the bad when it comes to public response.

“No matter what you post, there are always going to be people who get mad. It seems like there are people who are just trying to find something to complain about,” he said.

“You can have 99 positive comments and one negative comment, and as long as you can recognize that the majority are positive and supportive, that’s all that matters.”

The Dixon Police Department social media accounts focus on funny, but have a serious side. The Facebook and Twitter accounts serve as ways to get information on road closures, like the recent closure of U.S. Route 52 at the south end of Dixon due to a truck running into a railroad viaduct, as well as lost children, lost dogs and other emergencies, out to a large number of Dixon and Lee County residents quickly.

Dealing with the negative comments to posts was something that West found difficult when he first started posting to the DPD social media.

“I told him, you just have to recognize, as long as the majority is positive, that’s all that matters,” Sharp said.

The growth of the Dixon Police social media accounts took Sharp by surprise. Today, the DPD Facebook has 36,000 followers while the Dixon Police account on X, formerly Twitter, has over 11,500 followers and the Dixon Police Department YouTube channel has over 2,000 subscribers.

That following helps when the social media accounts have to turn serious.

“If we have a missing child, we’ll post a photo, and within minutes, we’ll have people call in, so the power of social media is huge,” Sharp said.

He said that one of his original goals, of showing the human side of the police department and himself and his fellow officers, has been achieved.

“Most of the people from the area who follow our social media, they know what we post and they’ve come to expect it. They know that’s how we are. That connection is huge,” he said.

“We have our job to do, but we want to show that personal side, too, so that people can come up to us and interact with us, wherever we’re at.”

Cultivating that connection with the public helps when the department needs the public’s help.

“If it makes them more willing to approach us or talk to us, then it worked. They can come up to us and talk to us and laugh with us and that helps with anything we do,” Sharp said.

“If we need their help, if we have a huge social media following because they like us and we actually do need their help, then we have a bigger number of people who are willing to help.”

One of the biggest challenges continues to be finding content and finding the next generation of officers to keep the content going.

“It’s the challenge of getting more people involved. We have quite a few who will get involved, like with our animal stories, they will share those with us,” Sharp said.

“Most of the times, it’s us saying, hey, we need your help with this video. Most of the time they will play along and that helps. It’s getting them to share their stories and it is a challenge to keep it going.”

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor