Inside the Seattle Police Department, a special three-person unit known as a “fire team” sets out every week on a mission to protect civilization from alien threats. The workings of this team are broadcast for all to see.
If this type of police work sounds especially heroic — and far-fetched — it’s a little bit of both.
In an effort to expand its digital engagement with the community, members of SPD’s public affairs office have started playing streaming video games on Twitch — creating an opportunity to discuss police work with a new audience on an emerging platform.
Under the handle FuzzFeed206, the group is made up of Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, SPD’s public affairs director, along with Det. Patrick Michaud, a public information officer, and senior communications manager Jonah Spangenthal-Lee. They’re “big-time gamers,” as Whitcomb characterizes them, and their work is unique.
“We’re constantly looking for some platforms that we can use to share the word and do our job, which is digital engagement,” said Whitcomb, who has been with the department for 22 years, the last eight as head of public affairs. “We’re not aware of any other police departments, or public agencies for that matter, using Twitch to communicate like this.”
The office already uses social channels such as Twitter, Reddit, Nextdoor and SPD’s Blotter blog to dispense information in a tone and voice that has attracted an audience not normally attracted to government agency PR musings. On Twitch, the Amazon-owned streaming platform, they play “Destiny,” a sci-fi first-person shooter game developed by Bellevue, Wash.-based Bungie, which also created “Halo.”
In 30-minute live streams, some of which are available to re-watch on YouTube, the FuzzFeed gang goes through the motions in the game like you might expect typical teenagers would. But the broadcasts are punctuated by informative discussions on a range of police-related topics such as car prowling, vice crimes, SPD’s K-9 program, sanctuary cities, robbery prevention and investigation, safe consumption and, because it’s Seattle, how to drive in snow.
“We basically go through the week and see, ‘Well, what’s an important topic this week? What is that people want to hear from the police department about?'” Whitcomb said. “And then we just talk about it, the three of us, on the Twitch stream.”
Each stream covers three topics and the voices of all of the players can be heard. Whitcomb is VesperBat, Michaud is SeaPD80 and Spangenthal-Lee is Project_Grizzle. It’s a trip to watch them blast aliens while discussing, for instance, the department’s policy on dealing with people when it comes to their immigration status.
Creative delivery of police news
Spangenthal-Lee joined the department about five years ago after stints at Seattlecrime.com, PubliCola.com, KIRO Television and The Stranger. He said he set out to give people a reason to come directly to a government site for content, and have it be accurate, quick, interesting and creative in its delivery method.
His boss, Whitcomb, said Spangenthal-Lee’s efforts have resulted in “a much more candid, open, friendly, humorous, transparent direction” for the communications coming out of the department. And it’s evident in talking to GeekWire, as Spangenthal-Lee peppered his descriptions of the work with sarcasm and comedy.
“I’m bad at video games in my spare time, yes,” he said when asked if he was a gamer away from work, and, “As it turns out, I have attention deficit issues, so I’m great at doing a ton of things at once,” he said about his ability to talk and fire his game weapon at the same time.
But Spangenthal-Lee admitted that it’s important for SPD to give people another way to communicate about police work “without having to call 911,” as he put it. While some officers have traditionally reached out to younger members of the community through sports at places such as rec centers, Spangenthal-Lee said the department was really looking to target people who are interested in video games who may be a little bit more introverted and might not ever have any direct contact with police in their lives.
“We have officers who go to basketball and flag football, boxing gyms and things like that,” Spangenthal-Lee said. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for that same style communication for folks that prefer video games or streaming.”
Whitcomb called it a safe place to have honest dialogue.
“Here’s some police employees playing a video game, trying not to get mowed down by these space creatures talking about how to drive in the snow and not get a ticket,” he said.
The public affairs office began messing around on Twitch back in September after flirting with the idea of doing podcasts. They’ve experimented with the best time to stream their “Destiny” play, from later in the afternoon on Thursday and Friday, to the new time of 8:30 a.m. on Tuesdays. The hope is to connect with young people who might be commuting to work or school on mass transit in the morning and have time to kill on a smart phone.
Earning social credibility
Attracting and building out an audience on any platform takes time, but the group promotes its game play heavily on Reddit. And they’ve had a couple viral moments on Twitter (below), interacting with David Dague, Bungie’s communications director, and a “Destiny” voice actress — practically celebrities in the world of online gaming.
It’s more evidence of the office’s desire for “two-way communication” and engaging with the public in ways that can often catch people off guard — in a good way.
No twist fate or touch of malice here. Our follow is just an ice breaker. You'll always have the last word. And that's the truth.
— Seattle Police Dept. (@SeattlePD) September 8, 2016
“This is total nerd gamer lore, but the voice actress for this character named Eris Morn gave us some props on Twitter basically saying, ‘Hey, everyone, this is how police departments should be engaging with their community,'” Whitcomb said. “All that stuff’s really heartening and just reinforces the idea that there is a vibrant and connected community here. We just want to make that sure we’re a part of it and offering up what we can as far as getting people access to policing … and some of the larger issues that we tackle like homelessness, like people are mentally ill, like pervasive property crime that doesn’t always make the 5 o’clock news.”
— Seattle Police Dept. (@SeattlePD) September 10, 2016
— Morla Gorrondona (@actor_morla) September 10, 2016
While Twitch is designed to allow people to watch other people play video games, Whitcomb said what’s going on with the three men in “Destiny” is definitely not about saving humanity from aliens. The game is just a vehicle to hopefully bring a small slice of a massive community in front of SPD.
Whitcomb said modern-day policing in a post-Ferguson world (referencing the 2014 shooting in Missouri of a black man by a white officer) demands a lot of transparency. He said SPD has been “an innovator and leader in police reform” and that he and Spangenthal-Lee led an effort to push video transparency forward.
“We were releasing officer-involved shooting videos typically within 24 hours for the last several years,” Whitcomb said. “So we’re not strangers to trying new things and not letting “it’s always been done this way” be a barrier to experimenting with new and different ways to really measure up to community trust and expectations.”
That being said, the group did have to run its project up the chain of command, past SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.
“I think a lot of people just say, ‘Yeah, go get ’em guys,'” Whitcomb said of his department’s various initiatives. “At the same time I’m not sure everyone fully understands how Twitch works.”
Spangenthal-Lee illustrated that point by recounting how the FuzzFeed206 pitch to others in the department may have gone down.
“Twitch? We’re already on Twitch. Don’t we have a bunch of followers on there?” … “No that’s Twitter, that’s different,” he said.
After streaming one episode by using three different TVs in his home — including a 12-inch set that Spangenthal-Lee had to play on in the kitchen — Whitcomb said SPD’s public affairs office is kind of like a typical Seattle technology startup.
“Like anything else, we’re basically starting off in a garage and who knows if we’ll grow into something bigger,” he said.
“We’re basically Apple. That’s what he’s saying,” Spangenthal-Lee joked.