Police car from Bangor, Maine, in front of a billboard advertising the city.

The lead photo on the Facebook page of the Bangor, Maine, Police Deprtment.

Cop-shop PIOs typically don’t ruminate on life in a small city or make jokes at their own expense. At least, not on social media. But since 2014, Tim Cotton — a lieutenant with the police department in Bangor, Maine (pop. 32,000) — has used the agency’s Facebook page for much more than news releases or photos of “the man putting his thumb down on the citizenry,” as he puts it. In addition to public service announcements about job openings or criminal activity, Cotton dispenses advice about road conditions in the snow (It’s Maine, so there’s a lot of snow.), grumbles about potholes and tells stories about the quirky interactions between officers and citizens. Scrolling through the folksy page is akin to listening to the best days of “A Prairie Home Companion,” but instead of a droll Garrison Keillor you get a wisecracking cop who just happens to be a good writer.

Here’s a typical post from November 2021:

While this has become an old story across the nation, we do catch a few of these catalytic converter thieves.

Something to keep in mind is to park your trucks, and other vehicles with more easily accessible converters, in areas visible to the public when possible.

If you see someone scurrying under a vehicle with a battery operated sawzall in hand, they are not “mobile oil change specialists,” or “Federal Exhaust Inspectors,” they are thieves.

Call us.

Park vehicles in view of cameras, under bright lights, or under the watchful eyes of Blitz, your wonderdog.

It might not follow the AP Style Guide, but neither does it bow to stiff law enforcement jargon.

Cotton, who will turn 59 next month, has been the police PIO in Bangor since 2014 after many years as a detective. He plans to retire this summer, turning the communications job over to someone who will, no doubt, “do it differently than I do,” he told me. Cotton will devote his writing chops to his website and blog, @TimCottonWrites, and books, most recently fiction.

He has no formal training in writing (“I failed English three times in high school.”), but grew up in a house filled with books. His grandfather had a large home library and got him a subscription to Field and Stream when he was 8 or 9. His grandmother gave him Reader’s Digest and clipped Erma Bombeck columns for him. And he read the newspaper, preferring the police blotter to the comics.

Cotton talked to Storyboard about why he reshaped the department’s Facebook page, his writing process, the public (and his bosses’) reaction to his posts and what he now reads for inspiration. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, with a needed apology to Cotton: We unbroke some of his broken writing rules to loosely follow AP Style.

Have you always been a cop?
Actually, I started out in radio back in the ‘80s. I worked for Stephen King at his radio station when I was like 20. One of the station managers had a small newspaper and I wrote some columns for them, just simple stuff, at $25 bucks a column. I wrote for a small sailing newspaper another friend opened; I knew nothing about sailing but I could write about boats.

My dad was a cop when he was younger, my grandfather was a fireman, so I felt like I wanted to do some community service and I became a cop. I’ve stuck with it, and I’ve enjoyed most all of it.

How did this Facebook page come to be?
I’d been a detective forever, then put in for a promotion in 2014. The only two jobs open at the time for sergeants were a midnight shift and the public information officer. I selected public information. It included handling the Facebook page, which at that time had 9,000 followers. I really didn’t know anything about social media. But I knew that in order to have people read a page you need to have something there for them  — not just memes and traffic warnings and weather alerts. I wanted to make it interesting, so I decided to write stories about human interactions.

Not a lot of agencies were doing anything humorous at the time, and it just exploded. We gathered 50,000 followers over the course of that summer; it’s about 330,000 now.

Some people don’t see the purpose of this because they feel like, why should a police department be funny? But if you want them to read the informational things, you have to provide something for them to come to in the first place. So I just wrote about officers’ interactions, funny things, interesting things, tidbits.

Give them something to read and they will come?
Yeah. That was my theory. No one’s coming here to read that we put cones on First or Second Street. They don’t care, and rightfully so. I know that if I read something myself, I like it to be humorous. I’d rather laugh than cry or be mad.

How did the department brass react?
My chief was real supportive and said, “Yeah, let’s do it. Do whatever you want to do.”

Sometimes he hears negative things from certain people, but usually those people have an underlying agenda. A lot of people would say we’re wasting money. But I write it on my own time. I get up about 3 a.m., and look at some national event that I can somehow relate to Bangor. I usually find something to write about around 4 or 5, then shut the book and move on.

Were there any parameters?
Just the same parameters we have on anything: Don’t talk about religion and don’t talk about politics. Other than that, it’s a free-for-all.

How do you deal with comments?
You have to interact with the folks who are following your page. I read all the comments every day. If someone has a question or an inquiry, I answer it. I think that’s been key to the page — that there is some interaction, and people are able to reach out and talk to a specific somebody. They know me as Tim, or TC, or lieutenant, or whatever they want to call me. If people give me crime tips,; I pass them along to the appropriate people..

You’ve published two books and have a website and blog. What are your books about?
I have my own Facebook page, which has about 66,000 followers, and I have the website where I do a blog, and 16,000 or 17,000 get that in their email each week.

My first book is called “Detective in the Dooryard” (published by Down East Books in Maine). It’s basically stories of interactions; some of that stuff is taken from the early Facebook posts. There was old stuff, new stuff and rehashed things. I sold 35,000 of those. The second one is “Got Warrants?” which is the most popular feature on the page. It’s a a comical take on the average interactions and arrests with police officers, so I wrote a book with all new “Got Warrants?” and they’re based on actual arrests, crimes, but written in a lot more hyperbole, with humor. We don’t make fun of people, but we make fun of situations. That came out last October. My third book is going to be a follow-up on my first one, which is essays and a series of stories. Now I’m working on fiction.

What do you read?
As a kid, anything, everything. But now I love E.B. White. I I love humorous essays. I always read newspaper columns like Dave Barry, P.J. O’Rourke — I read his stuff when I was just a kid — Art Buchwald, Patrick McManus. I read a lot of history books. Right now I think on my nightstand I’ve got “The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family,” because I enjoy reading the background of the 1960s and actors. I like the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child.

My career was made through the polygraph and investigations — basically crimes against persons, homicides, child abuse. You had to have a wide array of things in your head to have some connection with the people that you’re dealing with, whether they be a criminal or or a witness. So it’s nice to be able to talk about anything. I have always urged every cop that you really need to read a lot of different things even if you don’t like them. When I’m in the doctor’s office, I read the Ladies’ Home Journal.

It’s not something that’s going to come to my house, but there are interesting articles all through those. The more you know a little bit about a lot, it helps when you have to have discussions with such a varying cross-section of humanity.

I don’t see (reading) as a front-burner interest of most people that are coming into this trade now. It’s obviously a different generation, and they grew up with videos, the quick one-off things. I can’t say I know a lot of readers in police work.

What are the most unexpected reactions you’ve gotten from your posts?
Mostly females read my stuff; it’s interesting to see their take on it. And I’ve had people who drove distances to meet me because they said the writing helped them get through some trying times. A lady from Indiana, when she was cleared of her breast cancer, her husband asked her what she wanted to do. And she said, “I want to go to Maine to meet Tim Cotton.” A lot of people call and drop me letters to say, “My mother was dying and one thing I could do was read to her from your books, or from your posts.”

How did you come up with the sign-off  “Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people’s things alone and be kind to one another?”
It’s from my mother. It kind of came from how we were raised. It was commonly said, maybe not in that order, maybe not all at the same time, but those are three things that I heard constantly.

You said you’ve never had any writing training, and break the rules of writing that you do know. Tell me more.
I can’t tell you how I know, I can’t tell you what I know, I just know when I finish a sentence, I can tell you how many likes it will get because I can feel it when I write. If it’s funny and it makes me laugh, or if it’s sad and it makes me cry — I know if it works on me it’ll work on someone else.

I’ve had a lot of teachers who want me to come speak to their classes. I really don’t know enough about this to teach anyone. Like if you asked me to diagram a sentence, I would completely fail. But I’ve always felt like I was an adequate communicator, and so when I speak or when I write I do it exactly the same way. I certainly have become better at creating decent sentences, but I also defy most of the rules of writing.

Which rules?
I enjoy run-on sentence because they’re fun for me.
I like to use words together that aren’t commonly used together. If I said strangely humorous or vaguely clear, people understand what I’m saying.
I excessively use commas.
I like to write a paragraph and then one sentence after it. One of the things I do is I’ll write a long legal notice. And then at the end I’ll say, “That’s from the legal team.” And then in the next sentence I’ll say, “And, by the way, we don’t have a legal team.”

I write long things for Facebook, 800-word essays. I was told, “Don’t do that. Facebook has to be so many words and more pictures. And it’s not gonna work for you.” The week someone would tell me that — some professional in social media — I would have 10,000 likes and their page would go down by 300. I love to hear from critics but I don’t change because of a critic.

Why do you think more professional PIOs don’t do what you did with your department’s Facebook page?
I’ve had a lot of people say, What’s your secret? Can you tell me how to write like that? And I always say don’t try to write like I do. I can tell you that I believe interaction with people who read your page is most important. You need to be human. And you need to accept that you’re flawed, just like everyone who is reading your page.

I’ve taught at a couple of out-of-state communications classes. I watch a lot of pages before I go to an area, and I see no one answering comments. If someone has an inquiry, you have time to go back, even if you give them a short answer. People should know that you’re reading their comments because that’s what makes them feel like they’re being heard. If you want them to pay attention you need to let them know that you’re paying attention.

What do you think you’ve accomplished with the page?
I wanted people to find a different way to interact and see some positivity from a trade or an agency that is many times misunderstood. People don’t believe that cops are human; they think we’re robots who follow the rules. I wrote a column once called “Please don’t thank me for my service.” I don’t want you to thank me for my service, because it starts on a level where you’re lauding what I’m doing. I’m getting paid to be here. You’re thanking me with a check. How about we just talk about something else?

There are some horrific cops out there, no question, and they should be out of the trade or in prison. But the majority of your local police officers, state officers, federal officers are good people who are going to the Little League game with you. They don’t want to talk about speeding tickets, they’re not watching your inspection sticker, they don’t really care.

I think what I was trying to parlay through the page was that we’re just like you are and we think things are funny, too, and we can make mistakes. Because I really make fun of cops more than I do anyone else. I make light of our humanness.


Lisa Grace Lednicer is an editor at The Washington Post and an adjunct journalism professor at the University of Maryland.

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