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The police and their time travel machines

It was Back to the Future Day on 21 October – that is, the day on which Marty McFly and Doc Brown crash-landed the DeLorean into 2015 in Back to the Future II – and Queensland law enforcement decided to get in on the fun. The Mount Isa Police Department issued a statement saying that officers from the ‘Hoverboard Unit’ had attended a crash on Rodeo Drive.

‘When questioned what speed he was doing,’ the statement read, ‘the driver stated that he was doing 88 miles per hour. A 17-year-old man was charged and was in possession of a licence which expired over 30 years ago. Investigations into the vehicle and what a flux capacitor is, are ongoing.’

They weren’t the only law enforcement agency to make something of the joke. In fact, every state police department in Australia attempted something similar. But social media went crazy for the Queenslanders; the post made international news, was tweeted 1,267 times and received over 62,000 likes on Facebook.

Though the Queensland Police Department are particular Facebook favourites, this is not the first time the police have used social media in a deliberate effort to ‘soften’ their image.

Earlier in 2015, a patrol car dashcam video, uploaded to YouTube by the Dover Police Department, showing a bald, portly policeman enthusiastically singing along to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’, went viral:



At the time of writing, it’s been viewed over 37 million times. (Dover Police have since uploaded a sequel, Dashcam Confessional #DashCamDuet, which has only managed a measly two million views.)

Not everyone’s efforts, however, are so artful. The Upper Derby Police Department in Pennsylvania, for example,  whose Twitter profile page even exhibits doughnut-themed wallpaper, tried to make a funny out of sex work and auto theft, succeeding only in making themselves look skeezy:


And sometimes, the attempted outreach just backfires spectacularly. Like in 2014, when the New York Police Department invited the public to tweet pictures of their engagements with the NYPD alongside the hashtag #myNYPD. The resulting tsunami of images of police brutality and over 70,000 tweets on the hashtag, the vast majority of them negative, was an unqualified social media disaster. Perfecting an affable social media presence is an increasingly important media management strategy, of course, and one not confined to law enforcement. Mike Baird, for example, to the delight of Buzzfeeders everywhere, set the internet ablaze when he decided, apparently spontaneously, to live-tweet the finale of the most recent season of The Bachelor.  

On the aforementioned Back To The Future Day, Baird turned up to his office in an actual replica DeLorean. ‘I’ve seen the future for New South Wales,’ he said to the waiting camera, ‘and it’s fantastic.’ Instant cred, amirite?

But can a few tweets about a terrible (albeit addictive) dating show really soften the reverberating blow of, in Baird’s case, systematic privatisation and a textbook neoliberal agenda? Can a few daggy puns and witty one-liners really be enough to soften the material impact of a law enforcement whose gun-toting authority is regularly abused?

If the media response is anything to go by, maybe. It doesn’t always begin on social media either: ‘Plush puppies show Border Force has a soft and cuddly side’ read a headline from The Age after the ABF announced it was spending $14,877 on the Border Force-branded toys – part of a $10 million rebrand that, for the most part, was designed to shift the boring old customs department into a head-kicking paramilitary unit.

The objective, obviously, is an attempt to ‘humanise’. And we’re suckers for the quirky over the serious, particularly in the age of clickbait. There are actual people on the other side of these badges, the argument goes – cops are human too, and they have quirks and personalities and lives of their own, and it’s important we remember that.

But why does that make a difference? Because if we remember the gun-carrying guy in combat boots has a sense of humour it should somehow make it easier for us to accept their systematic targeting of people of colour? Because if we know that people in power can make jokes too, their routine abuses of that power and rapid dismantling of the social support networks that took the country decades to build will somehow be okay? Violence is always enacted by one person upon another; politics will always be the struggle of one group of people against another. God help us if all they think it takes to distract us from that struggle is a couple of jokes about a time machine.


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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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