PORTLAND, Maine -- Police here believe they have quacked the code for finding followers on social media.
The 80-officer Bangor Police Department, which serves a city of about 33,000, has attracted more than 20,000 likes on its Facebook page after humorous pictures of a stuffed duck were added. The duck, dubbed "Duck of Justice" or "DOJ," appears in pictures of police cars, department members and K-9 cops, often accompanied with some pithy text about law enforcement.
"I happen to believe that police officers are a pretty humorous bunch," said the man behind the duck, Sgt. Tim Cotton, a 17-year veteran Bangor officer with a fondness for the humor of George Carlin and Jim Gaffigan. "I want to read something that at least has some humorous undertones -- I wouldn't connect to a page that I didn't want to read."
Bangor is just one of many police departments nationwide discovering that using comedy on social media can help them interact with the public. One department, in 10,000-resident Brimfield Township, Ohio, has earned more than 155,000 Facebook likes for its chief's in-your-face humor about everything from methamphetamine busts to lost dogs.
Nancy Marshall, a Maine-based social media strategist who runs a public relations firm in the Maine capital of Augusta, said Bangor's site helps residents humanize the police.
"It's definitely a new way of engaging with the public," Marshall said. "I admire the Bangor police department for being bold enough to expose their humanity."
Cotton took over in April as the department's public information officer, a job that makes him responsible for the department's Facebook page. Since he started, the page's number of "likes" has shot up by more than 8,000.
The wooden duck -- stuffed by a taxidermist and rescued by Cotton from a trash compactor at a district attorney's office -- is a light way for the department to get residents' attention about sometimes serious matters in a crowded social media landscape, he said.
The duck has made the rounds in Bangor, appearing in a photo at Bangor Raceway with a caption that said it was "whistling 'More Than A Feeling"' because the band Boston was playing nearby. It also propped up a copy of the voluminous 2013-14 Maine criminal statutes book, reminding residents that it "will be in the office all weekend if you have any questions."
The duck also has a more serious side, appearing in profiles of new officers and a post about a lost dog.
The page has its detractors, including commenters who contend that paying Cotton to use social media isn't a wise use of public money.
Other departments' social media efforts have stumbled, such as the New York Police Department's April request for followers to post pictures of themselves with NYPD officers on Twitter with the (hash)myNYPD hashtag. Many users instead used the hashtag to post pictures of aggressive police behavior.
The duck originally was sneaked into in social media photos, hidden in plain view in a manner similar to the popular "Kilroy Was Here" graffiti of the World War II era. The duck became the focus of photos as it became more and more popular, Cotton said. The Facebook page has since received fans from as far away as Brazil and Iran, he said.
As for the critics, Cotton says it's just water off a, well, you know.
"Policemen find their job funny no matter what people think of police," he said. "There's horrible things in police work and there's wonderful things."