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Sheriff’s department hit a nerve on Twitter

When someone at the Durham County Sheriff’s Department hit send on a tweet showcasing a new “ghost car,” the reaction was likely the opposite of what was expected. 

A video embedded in the tweet showed lights that flash after the vehicle emerges from hiding engaged people from Durham to London. Almost 5,000 people commented, mostly with criticisms. Two critical comments generated over 20,000 likes.

“This ‘ghost’ car will be used by our #CommunityPolicing & traffic unit. W/ its low profile graphics you’ll never see it coming, especially at night. Make sure you’re not speeding, wear your seatbelt, and stay sober behind the wheel,” the Jan. 13 tweet read.

Department tweets typically spawn less than 10 responses. But outrage over police killings of George Floyd last May and many other unarmed Black people has greatly expanded critiques of U.S. policing on social media.

“if the mission is to serve and protect, why do you need to be invisible?” @man7186 asked. Others echoed this sentiment, arguing that visible cars are more effective at stopping speeding, drawing comparisons to the brightly marked police cars of Europe.

“Here’s what a UK police vehicle looks like. Intentionally visible and recognizable. Almost as if police are PUBLIC SERVANTS and should be immediately recognizable to said public. American police exists solely to prey and profit not protect nor serve,” read the top comment by @alsharptondurag, which amassed 25,800 likes.  Commentators also took issue with using taxpayer money in the middle of a pandemic while so many in Durham County are struggling financially. “…People are out here financially broken and I’m sure this 30k could’ve been allocated to an improvisational stimulus check for 15 random families within the community,” @CLtheCHEF wrote, attracting 5,300 likes.

Not all comments were factual, with some alluding to the Durham city police budget instead of the Durham Sheriff’s Department. Clarence Birkhead, Durham’s first Black sheriff, was elected to run the department with a reform-minded platform in 2018, including a vow to reduce officers’ use of force in the community. After Floyd died, he shared mourning and outrage.

“As a law enforcement leader, I am embarrassed, and outraged, at the behavior of a few officers …,” the sheriff said in a statement. “No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot understand how these incidents continue to occur and those officers responsible seemingly go unpunished.”

Speeding at illegal road races is one issue his department deals with, Birkhead noted in a Jan. 29 statement. “A week does not go by when our deputies are responding to individual residents and local neighborhood groups calling us for service about reports of loud, late-night ‘car meet-ups’ across Durham County,” Birkhead wrote. “This activity is not only illegal but obviously dangerous. We are committed [to] getting a handle on this reckless behavior and will hold those individuals accountable.”

Experts counsel police forces today to take extra care with social media posts, reminding them that everything on Twitter and other social platforms is visible worldwide. They encourage messaging that reinforces positive relationships between citizens and law enforcement. 

Emily Tiry, a research associate at the Urban Institute, co-wrote the Social Media Guidebook for Law Enforcement Agencies. It lays out four steps for a more effective social media presence, including establishing a baseline for social media use. 

Tiry emphasized the importance of having a social media policy, which the Durham sheriff’s department has. “The Durham Sheriff’s Office endorses the secure use of social media to enhance communication, collaboration, and information exchange; streamline processes; and foster productivity,” it reads. 

When asked about repairing community confidence after a post receives backlash, Tiry said she knows of no research about that. But it would be important for the organization to ask themselves some key questions such as, “Was the tweet following the social media policy? If it was then, maybe, reassess the policy?” she said.

Five days after heralding the ghost car, Birkhead’s department posted another tweet to clarify its intentions.

“We never expected such a large response to this video. Its intent was to be a light-hearted look at a tool our traffic unit uses to keep roads safe but it was taken out of context for some. DCSO values your thoughtful feedback &will continue to be engaged w/the community it serves.”

Still users were unsatisfied. “This tone-deaf response to a tone-deaf post is why people are upset,” @sisson-darrell replied.

When asked about the negative response, department spokesman AnnMarie Breen suggested enough had been said already. “We don’t have anything more to say about this topic,” she responded.

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at