WASHINGTON: Seattle’s Hempfest is the nation’s largest festival celebrating pot culture, especially the decriminalization of marijuana usage. This year’s Hempfest comes after the citizens of Washington voted to decriminalize and regulate pot statewide. Local police, though, are still charged with making sure that people use the substance in a smart way. At this year’s Hempfest, which starts today, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) will hand out flyers advising celebrants of their rights and responsibilities.
And to make sure party goers actually read them, the SPD tweeted that it will be sticking them to one thousand bags of Doritos chips, which it will hand out for free at the festival. Stereotypically, stoners do get the “munchies”, after all.
It’s a smart (and hilarious) idea that’s received national attention, and it’s not the first time SPD’s Public Affairs Unit has used humor to get important points across via the Web. I sat down with Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, the man behind the tweets and blog posts, to talk about how the SPD is using social media to transform how it communicates with the public, police drones, and the merits of the different flavors of Doritos.
Matt Hickey: Hello, Jonah! First off, what do we call you? What’s your official title?
Jonah Spangenthal-Lee: I really don’t even know anymore. Technically I’m a contracted consultant, so Digital Communications Consultant would be both an accurate and completely boring title.
MH: Most of the best are.
JSL: Webification Juggler, maybe.
MH: So you’re not a sworn police officer?
JSL: I am not. I’m a civilian employee. Or contractor. Whatever the right term is.
MH: Was the idea for the job of a social media operator yours or the SPD’s?
JSL: Well, SPD’s had Twitter since, I think 2008. But it hadn’t been used quite the same way that we use it now. We use it for a lot more two-way communication, and I’ve kind of put a voice-and-tone stamp on it.
MH: So when did you start? It’s been a couple of years, right?
JSL: Actually, March of 2012.
MH: So about a year and a half. Did the SPD pick you specifically for the more light-hearted approach you bring to the Twitter feed, or was that a happy accident on their part?
JSL: You’d have to ask my boss why he picked me, but the timing worked out. I think they knew what they were getting, given that I’d been writing about/haranguing them for the last five years at various media outlets.
MH: To that end, have you ever tweeted anything to the SPD’s feed that you perhaps shouldn’t have?
JSL: That would depend on who you ask. I think I have a good sense of what makes an appropriate tone and voice for an official feed, but we get grief sometimes — both on Twitter and elsewhere. That’s fine. I used to get hate mail and trolling in comment sections, so I’m used to it. That interaction is part of the fun.
The trickiest line to walk is when we have a major breaking situation. I’m trying to get info out as quickly as possible so people know why they can hear a million sirens in the distance.
MH: I’d agree there. Before you started, the SPD seemed to be utilizing Twitter as a one-way street.
JSL: Right. But we don’t always have a full picture of what’s going on, so we’re doing the best we can to piece together what we know, what we’re getting from dispatch, hearing over the radio, and from officers in field.
MH: How much information does the SPD give you when events are happening? For example, do you have access to the full dispatch feed? Or does someone decide what you get or don’t get?
JSL: Yeah, I — like the rest of the Public Affairs Unit — stay on top of what’s being dispatched. We also have a direct line to the dispatch center, radios, the drones, and other means of getting information timely.
JSL: No, totally kidding. We don’t have those.
MH: That’s exactly what one would expect the Public Affairs Unit to say. But let’s talk about the Doritos. Who’s idea was that?
JSL: Great question. It was a group effort. All the pot stuff has involved a lot of brainstorming, a lot of late nights, and a lot of Doritos.