On May 31, Meghan Burmester became a meme. She was featured, along with four other women, on the Harford County Sheriff’s Office “Ladies’ Night” Facebook post for alleged theft under $1,500.
“Oh yes! It's Ladies' Night here in Harford County!” the post said. “This month we are running our summer special - turn yourself in, and get a free stay at the Harford County Rock Spring Road Spa (a.k.a, Harford County Detention Center). Sorry, no pedicures, manicures, facials, massages, spa services included (or available).”
The Maryland department’s “Ladies’ Night” Facebook posts, which feature a handful of women who have open warrants against them usually for alleged theft or traffic- or drug-related offenses, are a big hit with its 55,000 followers.
“5 idiots!” one fan commented on the post featuring Burmester. Another follower tagged a friend and joked, “I found your dating site lol.”
“Just use a bag of fentanyl for their faces next time,” one comment read.
And under Burmester’s photo, in which she had a black eye, someone wrote, “Wow!! She is HIGH!!!!!”
One person did speak up for the group. “They look like young women who obviously have a substance use disorder,” the person commented. “They are sick and need treatment. Their legal troubles are a result of their addiction. These women are someone's daughter, sister or mother. A little compassion and empathy would go a long way. And perhaps a prayer.”
Burmester, a 28-year-old restaurant server in South Carolina, was in fact at the height of her heroin addiction at the time of the photo. She’d stolen something to resell so she could feed her habit, she told BuzzFeed News.
She is now five months clean, she said, but this post with her photo and her residential address remains on the sheriff’s Facebook page as a digital repository of shame.
Burmester, who was only in Maryland for a short time, didn’t find out about the post until a few weeks after it went up, when her ex-boyfriend’s friend sent him a screenshot. “Isn’t this your girlfriend in South Carolina?” the friend asked.
She called it “disgusting,” “unprofessional,” and “tasteless” that a law enforcement agency was allowed to mock people and make them “feel worse about their situation.”
“The most embarrassing thing is watching this community that sees the page comment nasty things on my picture,” Burmester said.
“I read these comments from people who have no idea who I am and they don’t know the situation I was in,” she said. “It’s humiliating.”
Police have experimented with using humor on social media for years. They’ve been both criticized for it and validated by it.
Social platforms, but especially Facebook, reward content driven by communally negative or extreme comments and reactions. So police departments are now celebrating #ThugThursdays, #FelonFridays, and “Ladies’ Night” and use the distracted boyfriend meme to mock suspects’ physical attributes, names, clothing, facial expressions, and drug addiction issues. Some of the posts are racist, sexist, and classist. Most of these suspects are accused of committing nonviolent crimes like shoplifting, not paying child support, and traffic offenses — though some are accused of violent crimes.
Facebook didn't return requests for comment.
Law enforcement agencies argue that they are successfully using humor and memes on social media in an effort to humanize officers, engage the community to get shares and tips, and find and arrest wanted offenders.
“Being a Township of 2,000 residents, but with [a Facebook] following of 90,000 speaks for itself that we must be doing something right,” Officer Matthew Godlewski of the Wilkes-Barre Township Police Department in Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News. The department uses GIFs and memes to engage with commenters in what he describes as "witty banter."
“As long as our supporters outnumber those who disapprove of our approach and we are seeing positive results, don't see why we would consider changing,” Godlewski said.
“Honestly, I don’t watch TV anymore,” a fan commented on one of the Wilkes-Barre department’s posts. “I depend on this site for entertainment 😂😂”
“We really need to either give these cops a raise, a promotion, or an award. I swear they are cops and meme gods together,” another fan wrote.
Criminal justice advocates and policing experts told BuzzFeed News that weaponizing humor and memes to publicly shame offenders online is, at best, unprofessional and at worst, undermines public trust in law enforcement.
“These departments are engaging in campaigns of public humiliation,” said Lynda Garcia, the policing campaign director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an organization led by Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
Individual officers have repeatedly been disciplined for problematic social media behavior. But Garcia said it’s “unprecedented” to see police departments as an entity using platforms this way. “At the department level, it carries an entirely different sort of seriousness and culpability and really indicates a culture of discrimination and not caring about community trust,” she said.
When law enforcement agencies use stereotypes or derogatory descriptions of offenders on social media, it also raises concerns about whether this attitude reflects their actual policing of communities.
“How can we trust that the same judgment in posting these overtly or implicitly biased statements is also not the attitude pervading other aspects of law enforcement’s activities,” said Bethany Young, a policy researcher at the Urban Institute, a Washington, DC–based think tank which partnered with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to conduct a survey on law enforcement’s use of social media.
Burmester said that her place of employment has no idea about her history. She’s worried that the “Ladies’ Night” post on the Harford County Sheriff’s Facebook page could jeopardize her job.
She admits that she was in the wrong at the time because of her addiction.
“But I am not that person anymore,” she said.
She is also worried about her address — where her family and daughter live — being posted on the world’s largest social network, where people are just a tag away. “You just never know who is seeing these things,” she said.
Burmester said that language the sheriff’s office used in the post was “tasteless.” She said that when somebody is wanted on the news, “you don’t see the newscaster making jokes” about it.
“I just think it’s extremely inappropriate and unprofessional of the police department and those higher up to even allow this to happen,” she said.
But Burmester said she is not considering any action to have the post taken down.
“I think the damage is already done,” she said, adding that she was fortunate enough not to be a local in the community.
That’s why she said she feels sad for the other women who are from the area and whose family, friends, and neighbors may have seen these posts.
“For professionals in that department, you would think they wouldn’t mock or make fun of people whose lives they don’t know about or what they’re going through,” she said.
The Mobile County Sheriff’s Office in Alabama — which has more than 60,000 Facebook followers — hosts “Thug Thursday” posts. (Seemingly aware of the racist connotations of using the word "thug," the sheriff’s office tried to justify it in a post saying, “A THUG is a violent person, especially a criminal.” It followed that up with the hashtag #redyellowblackorwhite.)
In one “Thug Thursday” post, the sheriff’s office overlaid photos of three black people, accused of stealing meat and ribs from a store, with the words “Bone Thugs-no-Harmony.”
“These three THUGS are having a Memorial Day Cookout and FREE concert,” the post said. “We also need to tell them to save the bones for our k9’s #theylovethemsomebones #anykindofbones.”
Lori Myles, the public affairs director at the MCSO, runs its Facebook page along with four colleagues. She acknowledged that the sheriff’s office had received criticism in its Facebook comments for using the word “thug.”
But Myles said the sheriff’s office didn’t address the criticism. She said that its loyal followers would point anyone who was offended to other “very diverse” posts by the sheriff’s department.
“It’s not based on race, it’s based on the offense,” she said. “And the majority of our thugs are white, Caucasian men.”
In one “Thug Thursday” post, the MCSO urged its followers to help them identify a black man who had allegedly stolen no more than $10 worth of items from a Dollar General store.
“Hey Big Al, It looks like you were having a few problems adding everything on one hand,” the post read, using hashtags like #heyheyheypettycrimedontpay and #gobigorgohome.
When asked about making fun of suspects’ weight, Myles said, “we don’t do that” — though they clearly did. She added, “People on our Facebook page do. We might compare like, this person may look like Fat Albert. We’re not going to say ‘you look like Fat Albert.’ We might use the hashtag #heyheyhey.”
In another post, the sheriff’s office created a meme and a nickname for a woman accused of using a fake $100 bill to pay for gas and cigarettes.
“MUSTANG MISTY likes to ride around in her purple mustang and use counterfeit money,” the post said, using hashtags like #mistylookrealskinnynow #weknowitsnotcuzuexercise.
When one commenter joked that the woman looked like “methstang misty,” the sheriff’s office replied, “Why didn’t we think of that one.”
Myles denied that the MCSO’s social media posts made fun of offenders’ physical attributes, but reiterated that its Facebook followers might do that.
“The point is to be funny and to get the word out, but it’s not to be cruel,” Myles said. “I can’t think of an instance where we have belittled or called someone out on personal appearance.”
Except the office has done it several times:
The sheriff’s office also encouraged its followers to write their own posts and hashtags for a “Thug Thursday” offender whose face it had photoshopped on the distracted boyfriend meme.
“It’s one thing if they’re posting mugshots publicly to pursue a legitimate law enforcement purpose,” Garcia, from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said. “This goes beyond that because they’re intended to humiliate people.”
Many of those people seem to be from groups that are most impacted by negative police practices: racial and ethnic minorities and people with housing insecurity or substance abuse disorders, Garcia said.
“If you looked like one of the people being mocked by the police department, what kind of confidence would you have in police?” David Harris, the managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School and a civil rights advocate, told BuzzFeed News.
He said the Houston Institute is in the process of recruiting more people to review offensive social media posts by law enforcement agencies and to identify potential relations between agencies’ Facebook posts and possible racial disparities in how they use force and conduct arrests or traffic stops.
Alabama’s Summerdale Police Department, which has nearly 20,000 Facebook followers, used a picture of a black man with 11 arrest warrants for traffic tickets on a Western-style “Wanted Wednesday” poster. It called him “wicked,” referred to him as “dawg,” and used the hashtag #goodinthehood.
Another “Wanted Wednesday” post featured a woman described as “Colossal” and appeared to ridicule her living situation. She had two active warrants and police said she had “money owed for public intoxication and your guilty conviction of illegal possession of prescription drugs, criminal trespassing."
“Carrie, we’ve been to the house you listed and we know you don’t live there,” the post said. “It’s a dilapidated abandoned home. Maybe it’s a representation of something?”
Another woman who appeared on a #WantedWednesday post for allegedly stealing plants and “personal items" was described as "Angry." The post included a reward of three Bic pens for locating her, a doctored image to falsely depict her gleefully smiling into a security camera as she allegedly stole the plant, and several of her unrelated, personal Facebook photos. It was shared by more than 6,200 people.
The post — which appears to have been deleted recently — said the woman had two active warrants against her for shoplifting.
Ridiculing suspects online could adversely impact their attempts to rebuild their lives, experts said. In many cases when a person’s warrant is recalled, the law enforcement agency updates its post instead of taking it down.
Young said that informal communication between law enforcement and the communities they serve is generally a positive thing.
“But when it’s asking certain members of the community to joke or laugh at other members, that is very, very problematic,” she said.
In keeping with the tone that the Wilkes-Barre Township Police Department often uses in comments, its Facebook followers take the lead in disparaging offenders’ appearances in mean-spirited and sometimes outright racist or sexist terms.
The department, which has been previously slammed for replying to commenters with a sexist meme, has continued to engage with its fans using similar tactics.
The people in charge of law enforcement agencies’ social media accounts are usually their public information officers, command staff, and even police chiefs, who are often hailed for their humor by the page’s followers and by local media.
Kyle Andersen, the public information officer behind many “Ladies’ Night” and “Wanted Wednesday” posts for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office in Maryland, has come to be known as “Funny Guy” by the page’s 50,000+ followers. The Baltimore Sun interviewed him earlier this year in a story about the department’s “arresting use of social media.”
The department’s use of humor has sparked several arguments between supporters and critics on the sheriff’s Facebook page.
“Love the funny guy,” one “top fan” of the page commented, referring to Andersen. “Shows that law enforcement has a sense of humor. Makes their tough job a little more tolerable.”
“I’m embarrassed,” another comment said. “This is the way an organization that is supposed to be a pillar of our community operates? Yes, posts re: those with open warrants but to be so unprofessional, immature, and dehumanizing about it? And neighbors liking and laughing… I see you.”
Law enforcement agencies defend their social media strategy by citing their massive success in engaging the community to get leads and tips on a criminal’s whereabouts.
Cristie Hopkins, the director of media and social relations who works with “Funny Guy” Andersen at the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, said its posts often reach over 100,000 views thanks to more than 53,000 Facebook followers.
“We know that using humor helps social media posts engage more citizens,” Hopkins told BuzzFeed News. “The more citizens we engage, the farther the message travels, and the more likely we are to get a good lead on where a criminal might be hiding.”
Myles said the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office in Alabama has solved crimes “within two weeks” of urging its followers to find offenders on its Facebook page.
Godlewski, of the Wilkes-Barre Township Police in Pennsylvania, said that his department’s popularity on Facebook “may in fact be deterring some from committing crimes.”
He said that when the officers arrest people, often the first words out of their mouth are “this isn’t going to end up on your Facebook, is it?” — not “What am I being charged with?” or “Am I going to jail?”
“Their first concern is ending up on social media, which pretty much speaks for itself,” Godlewski said.
The agencies who spoke to BuzzFeed News all dismissed concerns from criminal justice advocates that their posts target vulnerable communities and those who have historically fraught relationships with the police.
“These are not people who are first-time offenders or someone who made a mistake,” Myles said. “They’ve served time in prison, they’ve come back out, and guess what…burglaries in the neighborhood go right back up because they didn’t change.”
Godlewski was more direct.
“The short and sweet answer: ‘Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.’” ●
Additional reporting by Sarah Forland.