One of @OfficerCortese’s top-performing TikToks of the past few weeks shows him responding to the question “How do you like being a cop?” “I like it, but not a lot,” he lip-synchs to audio of Gru from the Despicable Me franchise. It then cuts to a nonplussed Cortese against the backdrop of a raging fire, with the caption “Being a cop in May and June.” “I don’t like it,” he mouths.
Cortese, who declined to give his first name, is a 27-year-old patrolman in small-town Montana; he’s dimpled and blue-eyed and crew-cutted, and looks like a boy an eighth-grade girl would doodle Taylor Swift lyrics about in her notebook. As he readily admits, this likely contributes to the fact that he’s accrued more than 172,000 followers in a little more than a month and a half, about 70 percent of whom are female. “They’ll say stuff like, ‘What do I gotta go to get pulled over,'” he says, clearly trying to sound mildly bemused (but actually sounding more just flattered).
But it’s not just Cortese’s looks that has garnered him such a following. His account is exemplary of the subgenre of Cop TikTok, in that he uses it to gently poke fun at stereotypes associated with his profession and promote a positive, more humanized view of law enforcement— something that, in light of the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, is arguably close to impossible.
Cop TikTok is saturated with many young, good-looking, small-town cops like Cortese; the genre is so well-established that there are YouTube compilations of cop cringe content. “There’s a lot of downtime when you’re a police officer,” says Richard Kania, a professor of criminal justice at Jacksonville State University, attempting to explain the appeal of the platform for law enforcement officers. “You can’t leave the car, you can’t walk away and take a break. You’ve got your body cam and your cell phone. [TikTok] is just another way to pass the time.” Superiors’ tolerance for social media shenanigans apparently varies greatly by department. Cortese says that while “some cops give you crap” about goofing around on TikTok, his department policy doesn’t explicitly prohibit him from maintaining a social media presence, though he hasn’t formally had a discussion with his command about it.
Why cops are so popular on TikTok, however, is a bit harder to pin down, if only for demographic reasons. The vast majority of TikTok users are young (41% are between 16 and 24, per one analytics report), and one would assume that younger people would shy away from any content perceived as pro-cop. Yet @OfficerDaniels, a TikTok cop with more than 719,000 followers, says this is far from the case. “There’s overwhelming support on TikTok especially from the younger generation, which is certainly the people that we want to impress the most and work with the most,” he says.
A former Vine celebrity, Daniels migrated to TikTok in 2018, back when the app was still known as Musical.ly. A self-described full-time influencer (he retired from law enforcement in 2014), he’s now the director of Humanizing the Badge, a nonprofit founded by the wife of a police officer that attempts to “help forge stronger relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.” Some of this involves shoe-leather community outreach, such as a trip to Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown to speak with the city’s grieving, outraged citizens.
But on TikTok, the hashtag #humanizingthebadge is replete with videos of cops participating in trends and gently poking fun at themselves. One video shows a cop in full uniform squirting a water gun into a dog’s mouth to the tune of Auntie Hammy’s “Pew Pew Pew”; another is a meme of a highway patrolman feigning shock at a drunk driver successfully completing a sobriety test. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a not-insignificant amount of content about coffee and donuts.
Most influencers, more often than not, insist they have absolutely no underlying agendas, that they do what they do simply for the love of posting branded tummy-shrinking tea and Vagisil content and for no other reason. This is not the case for cops on TikTok, particularly those who use #HumanizingTheBadge. They’re clear about why they’re there, and what they’re doing: It’s essentially a PR campaign for the police force. “Even if people have a strictly negative response or have had negative encounters with police, they see cops on TikTok, and they’re just like, ‘Wow, they’re goofy and they’re nice,’ in the comments,” says Cortese. “It’s just nice to see the police out of their shell a little bit. It’s like virtual community policing, except on a world level.”
The goal is to promote a view of police officers as buff yet benign guardians of the peace, even if the image promoted on TikTok clashes with reality, as seen in the case of Anthony Johnson, aka @ohnoitsdapopo, who has 1.2 million followers and was investigated last year after being caught on video punching an unarmed man in the face. (An internal review cleared Johnson of any wrongdoing; Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.)
There is more than a minor element of self-defensiveness attached to this stance. “There’s this cop mentality of us against the world, and that nobody else understands their lives,” says Jim Mulvaney, adjunct professor in the department of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Especially in times of high tension, when every time you turn on the TV and see bad cops, people are gonna be hyper-sensitive. These different social media forums are giving [cops] a voice they feel they may not have had before.”
One of the main unspoken tenets of the #HumanizingTheBadge movement is to render the function of the police force apolitical. Officer Daniels says he mostly tries to avoid posting political content, as does Cortese (“I just want to keep the positivity going and stay out of the negativity,” he says). But it isn’t difficult for even a casual follower to discern Cortese’s right-leaning politics: A promo code on his page is for Patriotic Pump, an apparel website that sells T-shirts with such slogans as “Fire your guns” and “love squats not thots” (which is, if not overtly conservative, at least posits a more progressive view of Leg Day than of sexually active women).
With the George Floyd protests, however, it has become increasingly difficult for cops on TikTok to avoid stepping into the politicized fray. That’s in part due to the brutal nature of Floyd’s death and the unambiguously horrific circumstances of his killing, and most police officers will profess to have been horrified by the video. “I‘m certainly one who very much advocates for waiting for the facts to come out and not looking at things in hindsight. There was just nothing in that video that I could think of that would change how I felt about it,” Daniels tells me.
Regardless, it’s a tough time to be the cute and cuddly face of law enforcement, and police officers on TikTok have a hard time staying out of the fray, no matter how much they may like to. Daniels, for example, says he felt compelled to speak out about the George Floyd video on Instagram. On TikTok, he had posted an old video of himself with one of his former kids he coached on a football team, who is black, as a show of unity; though some accused him of posting the video as a way to preempt criticism of police racism, it performed well. He also posted a video about a friend of his, a cop whose son is being treated for cancer at St. Jude’s. “There’s a lot of people saying, ‘Hey, we don’t support the bad cops, we support the good cops.’ I decided that now was a good time to really use the platform to say, ‘Hey, this is a good cop,'” he says.
Cortese says he regularly gets asked now how he feels about the Black Lives Matter movement, and though he will reply to individual comments, he has refrained from weighing in on his TikTok. One of his most recent posts was not of him discussing the Floyd video or the movement, but of him dancing to Eric Prydz’s “Call on Me.” “What do [people] want me to do or voice that will make such a drastic change?,” he says, when asked why he doesn’t acquiesce to commenters’ requests he speak out against police brutality. “The only thing I can do is go to work and do the best job I can and treat everyone fairly.”
But even though some commenters have rallied for him to speak up, he says that the vast majority prefer to see him exactly as he has been presenting himself: Not as a representative of a deeply flawed, arguably violent, and inherently racist system, but as one of the goofy good guys in a media cycle dominated by a few Bad Apples. And the viral, algorithm-driven nature of TikTok makes it relatively easy for him to keep portraying himself thusly. “I just want to keep the positivity going and stay out of the negativity,” he says.