Tag Archives: Police officer

Guest post: The social media officer

Coralville PD community relations officer Meleah Droll tweets as @CoralvillePD; can a social media officer position be far behind?

Coralville PD community relations officer Meleah Droll tweets as @CoralvillePD; can a social media officer position be far behind?

When Mike Vallez launched his social media blog a few weeks ago, I was struck by a comment he made in one of his first posts: “I would venture to guess that in the future you will have a social media police officer or many social media police officers that will be involved in “the conversation’”….

I asked him to elaborate on that comment: Should they do ALL of the social media for a PD, or should they simply monitor all the channels and direct outreach efforts? What role would they play during critical incidents? What experience should they have? How would they interact and cooperate with other officers doing public outreach?

Mike’s answers, reprinted with permission below, provide much food for thought:

As time goes on and social media continues to become more prevalent in people’s lives, law enforcement is going to have to deal with the Goliath known as social media.

I firmly believe that if there are not already full-time social media police officers; that there will be dedicated social media police officers, communications officers, etc. in the very near future. Is it outlandish to consider positing a police officer on the computer 24/7 to monitor and Tweet or Facebook out information? I don’t think so.

Social media management

As social media changes, so does the management of social media. Police departments are going to have to include social media into their communications policies or standard operating procedures (SOP). Communication for law enforcement agencies usually falls to the Public Information Officer (PIO), but is usually managed by the chief or his executives.

Law enforcement needs to embrace social media and investigate what benefits they can realize. These may include better communication with their customers, cost savings, and gaining respect from the citizens they police through authenticity/honesty.

On the flip side police, departments are going to have to find knowledgeable individuals either inside or outside their departments who have social media experience to implement these policies correctly. If a social media policy is not implemented correctly then it probably won’t be understood by the community or the agency. Hence the agency in question will realize a social media failure and will be hesitant to use this powerful communication tool going forward.

The social media officer’s duties

Most law enforcement agencies will adapt and embrace social media over the next few years as a valid communication tool, out of necessity. You will see social media police officers that monitor the bigger social media websites like Twitter and Facebook.

A few duties these officers may have is to monitor what is being said about their agency (Twitter side search box) so they can respond to possible discrepant information or help a citizen with a problem proactively. These officers can Tweet out or send Facebook messages on a variety of things: traffic accidents, crime prevention, crime patterns, videos of crimes, etc.

Another duty would be to have a blog about their department, covering human issues within the department to reach out for that personal touch with the community. Does this position have to be a sworn law enforcement officer? This could be up for debate. Maybe this position would fall in the PIO’s area and then again maybe not. [Christa notes: some community relations officers fill this role. Cops 2.0 partner Scott White is his agency's IT manager.]

The social media dispatcher

When people start to report crimes on Twitter and Facebook, which has already happened, I think there is a good argument to have a sworn law enforcement officer tracking this information. The officer would be able to communicate tips, suspect descriptions, etc. to his fellow officers from a trained police officer’s perspective.

[This creates] the argument that Twitter and Facebook communication should fall under the onus of the communications section (dispatchers). Dispatchers are trained how to handle stressful situations, specifically communicating with victims.

But, why not have Twitter and Facebook fall in all of these areas? Use the department’s main Twitter account as the feed and have the different sections monitor this feed. You can have a SOP, which points out what Tweets or Facebook communications will be handled by whom. This is called Social Media dispatching, which is not too much different than regular telecommunication dispatching.

Social media is here for now and growing at an exponential rate. Law enforcement agencies that turn a blind eye to social media will eventually be caught in a firestorm. This will most likely happen when social media could have been used for prevention or warning of real time incidents, but was not and a negative outcome results.

Social media police officers, social media dispatchers, social media community service officers are all going to be on the horizon due to the cultural changes that are occurring in how people communicate using social media.

How might your agency benefit from a dedicated social media officer?

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Transparency vs. anonymity

Does transparency sacrifice honesty in blogs?

Does transparency sacrifice honesty in blogs?

An interesting debate has cropped up over on ConnectedCops.net about whether police officers should be allowed to blog anonymously.

It started with Lauri’s point in her post on elements of a social media policy (cross posted here and on her blog):

3. Identity. Some bloggers work anonymously, using pseudonyms or false screen names. Law enforcement agencies should absolutely insist that in blogs, wikis or other forms of online participation that relate to the department or the city, or activities or issues with which the department is engaged; department employees use their accurate identity.

Which stuck with me because of the number of excellent cop bloggers who are anonymous. You can read mine and the other comments there. At the debate’s heart: whether anonymity allows more honesty (yes, honesty, not bravado or bigotry or any other negative connotation) than they perhaps otherwise would use.

Positive perceptions

I emailed one of the anonymous bloggers to get his opinion. He doesn’t hide his workplace from his readers, and I wondered whether he was working with his administrators’ blessing. If so, I asked, how was anonymity decided upon?

I just started blogging on my own. I decided that the ‘net was full of the cop sites complaining about bureaucratic and political incompetence so I thought I’d do something upbeat. I figured if it was positive it would be harder for the big shots to complain about it.

A few weeks after starting I was contacted by one of our command staff through the site asking who I was. I was honest about it and didn’t hear anything else…. I was told that they see it as my right and they aren’t intervening….

My anonymity is an open secret at work. It’s a small enough agency that it wouldn’t be hard to figure out from my stories. I’m more concerned about Internet privacy and not being stalked over it. I’ve had some interesting hate mail through the site and I don’t want to give anyone a target.

Again with the officer safety

He continued:

I do think that the Internet opens you up to a whole world of cop haters hiding behind their computer screen. The problem is you don’t know which ones are willing, or capable, of carrying out the threats. I know these people don’t like me, and I don’t care. If I wanted to be liked, I would have been a fireman.

However, I don’t want them having my real name to attach to my blog so they can figure out where I live or otherwise target me. My administrative policies can’t override the first amendment if one of these wack jobs decide to target me because of my blog and post my home address on some cop hating site.

Especially if the hater is clear across the country. At least if some local crazy starts stalking me through work I have a chance of filing charges or otherwise working it out. Imagine if an Internet stalker on the other side of the country does it online, my department would be powerless to stop it or protect me. I’m definitely not putting my name on my blog.

Department-sanctioned tools

Lauri rightly points out that this is the reason why social media policies should cover the tools that are and are not sanctioned by the department. Although I am concerned that this might remove an otherwise important “coping” mechanism for officers, sites like the Experience Project may cover this issue.

Perhaps the real problem lies not in whether law enforcement must sacrifice honesty for transparency, but in whether citizens are comfortable with their police officers having a voice. One chief, who does not blog anonymously, wrote me a few months ago that he was going dark for a time:

One of my illustrious citizens came across my accounts and made a complaint to the Mayor and Council. Of all the things I’ve posted on Twitter, he or she was hung up on a post I made about people acting stupid—alluding to the fact I was either speaking about my officers or my citizens. That particular comment was directed at a vendor I had been dealing with….

City administrators were supportive, but the chief chose to avoid conflict—a shame, because I haven’t heard much from him since.

Honesty vs. liability

Ideally officers can be honest about what they see daily. It might encourage citizens to change their behavior: not calling 911 when their children refuse to go to bed, or to help them take their pills. It might even go as far as citizen journalism. In prior generations, officers with serious concerns about department corruption went to the media. Now, they can be the media. As my contact notes:

If you want to publicly criticize your agency or city management, anonymity is the only thing [allowing you to keep] your job. Look at bloggers like Inspector Gadget–I have no questions he would be fired, or drummed out of his rank, or transferred to some terrible assignment if they found him out. Same thing with Second City Cop. The Chicago Political Machine would probably make them disappear like Jimmy Hoffa.

Indeed, many administrators fear the liability bugaboo. However remote the possibility of a successful lawsuit over “emotional distress stemming from embarrassment” might be from an unnamed citizen who nonetheless recognizes him- or herself, nothing would stop a lawyer from trying—and causing considerable expense, not to mention stress, in the meantime.

Should cop bloggers be allowed their anonymity, or should they be required to be up front about their identities—even if it sacrifices some honesty?

Image: thelastminute via Flickr

Why aren’t more cops implementing social media?

Could more cops be social on social media?

Could more cops be social on social media?

Writing a blog entry, I began to speculate about why cops aren’t as involved with social media as, well, I think they should be. Was it the technology? The personal interaction? The anonymity? Or simply that they don’t yet understand it well enough? I didn’t have the experience to say authoritatively. So I opened it up to the field: Twitter.

LE tweeps: do you think more LE don’t get on board w/ social media b/c they fear the inability to size ppl up as they would in person?

@ikepigott:
Might be because they often associate them with anonymity and crimes. (Think ‘To Catch a Predator‘)

I was presenting at a conference for EMA types, and one guy told me that using Social Media during disasters only legitimatized the medium, and he wouldn’t sink to giving an appearance of truth to those websites.

@sheephogan:
Personal & professional sides dont seem 2 mix for LE, I seem 2 recall a fear of having my weaknesses discovered. It’s like this.. You know the badge and Officer, or you know me, not both.

CMM: So it was sort of a “tactical advantage” thing?
More like “Taboo”, a status offense 2 commingle outside ur peers. Retirement is a release, a permit to be true to yourself.

CMM: Is it still a status offense? I was under the impression this generation of ofcs felt differently, tried to keep w/ peers.
Many factors can make a difference. Size of the department is one, population of the city, etc. Large is probably more loose.

@ICT33:
i think because admin is against it. Some cops have posted dumb/embarrassing stuff to dept/officers
[such as] photos/comments like them drinking, partying hard, risqué photos or crime scene photos

plus it protects them from inappropriate comments;/relationships, particularly in HS range

(There were other responses. But I’m saving them for the next entry.)

But that wasn’t all…

Cops 2.0 partner Scott White wanted to take the question more in-depth, and we ended up with a Q&A. Following:

CMM:  Original question: Do you think more LE don’t get on board w/ social media b/c they fear the inability to size ppl up as they would in person?

SW:  There is a stigma about being too open and public. Many see it as an officer safety thing… I agree to a point.  I, and most of our friends here, are the exceptions by far… not the rule.

I think some [use] officer safety as an excuse not to use social media, others are hyper vigilant.  Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they AREN’T chasing me.

CMM: Which “folks” warn LEOs off using social media — administrators, other cops? Do they know people personally who have had damage done due to false allegations made on social sites?

SW:  Other cops generally.  In my experience, it has been old school officers more so than younger, less about their particular positions or rank. (admin, leadership).  They express concern about “bad guys” learning too much about an officer and showing up at their front door, following them out in town when off duty.

Another issue with this would be the fear of talking out of school by the officer.  Where do agencies draw the line and open discussions of “work”?

We recently had an incident where an officer posted a video of other officers being hit with a Taser.  It’s part of the training, and is voluntary.  The officer would video another officer being hit and their reactions.  All of the officers shown in the video were ok with it and gave permission for the videos to be posted.

An administrator had a problem with it.  The admin didn’t feel it was appropriate to post our internal training videos.  And we had no direct policy in place to deal with the situation.  The posting officer did nothing wrong according to department or city policy but it did raise enough of a concern to warrant ongoing discussions and set out the groundwork for a social media policy.

(We don’t HAVE a social media policy.  Which is why I can do what I do.  LOL  We are working on one that I am on the committee for.  The skeletal beginnings will allow for officers to participate and provides only guidelines.  We’ll see what the end product looks like.)

CMM:  Training like Verbal Judo teaches officers how to maintain tactical advantage even when being friendly. How does this extend online, and is it easier for some officers than others? Can it be learned?

SW:  Verbal Judo, or as we love to call it, Tongue Foo, is a serious tool to have in one’s bag.  It is VERY effective.  A lot of what Verbal Judo is has to do with tone, body language and words.

You lose the first two online immediately.  Some “tone” can be injected into the message but it’s limited to emoticons and use of online slang and colloquialisms.

I think it plays a less than important role online.  Yes, some officers adapt to it more readily than others, it can be learned, and even applied online to a point but its a skill that must be practiced and will have limited impact online.

CMM:  What makes ofcs who are online different from those who shy from it? Is it the same as the difference between the open, friendly community relations officer vs. the patrol cop who sticks to his cruiser?

SW: This is a tough question and will have a lengthy answer.  We need to separate this question into different columns or sections.  Officers online for the sake of social purposes, officers online for investigations, and officers online to promote or communicate with the citizens (information).

I personally, fall into the first and last.  I don’t, or haven’t, conducted investigations online as yet.  This is always subject to change.

In some ways, this question is answered above with the “old school” vs. “new school” remark.  Most officers that I know and work with who are “online” are the same officers that DO get out of their police cars and talk with people.  They are social by nature.

Online they tend to be as social as they are in “real life” personally and professionally.  They recognize and appreciate the social aspect of social media, and tend to move together in a group.  Officers are online friends with other officers.  There may be a few stray “civilians” in their lists but by and large it will be other law enforcement professionals or those who can relate.

There are many reasons why this happens.  I teach a course at my department called Surviving the Job.  I reference a book by Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D, called Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.

Throughout the book (which by the way, I consider a MUST READ for every law enforcement officer and their spouses/significant others), Dr. Gilmartin discusses the psychological needs behind cops socializing with other cops.

Without getting into much detail, it has to do with the ebb and flow of adrenaline and the need to “feel” it to be normal.  Some law enforcement professionals get this “fix” via social networking.

Many law enforcement professionals, will carry the same conversations online that they would if they were at the local watering hole.  They will complain about the administration, the people they deal with, the last big chase…  thus reliving the adrenaline laced moment they were in.

I can show you thread after thread after thread on Facebook, Twitter and other sites where this is occurring on a regular basis.

So what makes them different?  I don’t know but I do feel, in some ways, social media interaction is a coping mechanism for some.  They are the ones who DO talk about what they deal with.  Older officers just internalize it.

CMM:  What about the “status offense” of commingling outside your peers? Or the fear of lending “legitimacy” to social networking sites that don’t “deserve” it? (What’s the attitude behind this?)

SW:  This brings up an interesting conundrum.  With over 1200 followers on Twitter and several hundred on Facebook, and unknown numbers on the many other social media networks I update, how many folks there may fit that profile?  It is against policy for me to associate with known felons on a personal level.  But if I don’t KNOW they are felons, can I be held accountable?

The policy is questionable at best and that fact is recognized by everyone concerned.  It is not a “scarlet letter” to be thrown over every situation.  For instance, if my next door neighbor is a convicted felon, does that mean when we have neighborhood cookouts he can’t come over?

The answer is no, that’s not what it means.  But if he is a convicted felon, lets say convicted of fraud and embezzlement, can this policy come into play if I go into business with him?  Maybe.

No one knows for sure how far it can reach, but I seriously doubt it would reach into the non-tactile world of social media.  UNLESS we’re talking about an online crime of some sort.

As far as social media sites that don’t deserve it, the free market will determine that.  If it’s not “cop friendly” then cops won’t be there.  Period.

What’s your opinion of why more cops don’t get involved with social networking?

Image: D.C.Atty via Flickr

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Media training via social media?

Image: <a href=This analysis from Crisisblogger Gerald Baron, on an interview Cambridge PD Sgt. James Crowley did with the media, makes me wonder: can social media help train officers to deal with traditional media?

Cops are taught, by and large, to steer clear of the media. The PIO or a commanding officer handles them at critical incidents, and “regular” cops must get permission before speaking to reporters.

So what happens when an untrained officer finds himself in a media interview? Some (I speak from experience) do a great job. Others, like Crowley, find themselves so severely disadvantaged that if this were a street fight, they’d be in the gutter. As Baron writes:

What did he do wrong. One, he said he wasn’t going to say anything–then he said exactly what they hoped he would…. He kept engaging them–they did a great job, just like a good telemarketer, of keeping him engaged. You could see his guard dropping further and further and then they went in for the kill: will you apologize. And that’s where he made his headline-creating mistake. He not only said no, emphatically no, in effect hell no, he said he never would and when asked if it meant losing his job, he spoke for his department by saying it ain’t going to happen, won’t ever happen.

What does this have to do with social media?

In my opinion, the more officers are familiar with people and how they transmit information among one another online, the better they will understand what people are looking for and how they want to receive it.

Notice, by the way, that I didn’t say officers have to engage with people. It’s preferable, of course—to become part of information dissemination—but I’d argue that simply watching works too. It’s like how constant reading teaches a writer how to write, almost via osmosis. You learn to figure out why something clicks for you, how sentence structure and word choice and many other “tricks” come together to form truly great writing.

Why is this important? Because pure information sharing is a different form of communication than what most cops are used to. It’s not about getting people to explain their problems, or obey your instructions. It’s finding out what’s going on. Not unlike getting incident data via CAD, in some ways.

Authentic communication promotes authority

Even more importantly, however, social media can help non-media-trained officers learn how to channel a quality that’s lacking in most “canned” media interviews: authenticity. This is a point, in fact, that Baron brings up in a blog entry from three years ago:

The point is to be effective you have to be open and honest, trustworthy, responsive and communicate effectively the messages important to your organization, and do this while being totally yourself. The ones who do very well at this succeed on all counts. But it ain’t necessarily easy.

These values are inherent in social media. Marketers and public relations people who help businesses learn social media talk constantly about authenticity, honesty, responsiveness, being yourself even when representing your organization. These are perhaps, then, the most important takeaways for law enforcement officers.

Not many officers will end up in Sgt. Crowley’s position, but in an age where information is expected as rapidly as it’s demanded, preparation isn’t a bad thing. No, you don’t want officers at an incident scene all telling their own versions of what’s happening. There’s a reason the current model works.

And social media cannot be a substitute for proper media training, just as social media-savvy officers shouldn’t be chosen as PIOs just because they “get” the online culture. As Baron points out, it takes the right mix of personality and communication skills along with training.

Still, the shift commanders and supervisors need to be better prepared. “No comment” doesn’t cut it anymore; people think you’re covering something up. Also, future PIOs will come out of this crop of officers. The more officers have the chance to learn how to talk to the public—via the media or not—the stronger the pool administrators have to pull from.

“Authentic” and “authority” have the same root word: autos, Greek for “self.” Communicating with authenticity, from one’s own self, provides and promotes authority—the thing no law enforcement officer should be short of, on the street or in an interview.

Image: Ernst Moeksis via Flickr

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Blending professional and personal in Aurora (Illinois)

Lt. Kristen Ziman, Aurora (IL) Police Dept.

Lt. Kristen Ziman, Aurora (IL) Police Dept.

I recently blogged about “expert branding” and how it could help a police department’s overall mission by drawing on officers’ experience and taking some of the informational weight off the PIO’s shoulders.

Around the time I was writing the post, I noticed Lt. Kristen Ziman (@Lt_KZ on Twitter) was tweeting some pretty funny stuff. I also realized that her blog, Think Different, has a lot of personality to it. Most importantly of all, I saw that she wasn’t hiding behind a pseudonym, as many officers do, and her agency’s location was out there for everyone to see.

Contacting her via Twitter, I asked: are you the department PIO? How did you get to be its voice?

“No,” she responded, “I am not the PIO of the Aurora Police Department. We already have a brilliant and competent man who does that job (Dan Ferrelli).”

So what was up with the blog, and the tweeting?

“About a year and a half ago,” Ziman told me, “I asked the Chief if I could implement an ‘ask the police officer’ column where residents could write in questions on topics of interest to them. The Chief gave me the green light and Dan Ferrelli got the ball rolling with our local newspaper.

“It quickly evolved into more than a question and answer column and it became the police ‘voice’ on controversial topics in policing (police brutality, search and seizure, us vs. them mentality, police suicide, etc.). It got enough positive feedback that the newspaper has continued to run it on a bi-weekly basis…. My blog is simply a copy of all the columns that run in the Beacon and those are approved by [the Chief] before print.”

And Twitter?

“I joined Twitter just before the boom of subscribers,” says Ziman. “In our department/city, we have W.I.G.S. (Wildly Important Goals). Each division head must come up with goals that must be achieved each year. As the Shift Commander of midnights, I thought Twitter would be a neat way for the officers to follow our progress instead of waiting for my bi-weekly reports to come out.

“Unfortunately, only 4 or 5 guys started following me. The rest looked at me funny and continued to say, ‘What is Twitter again?’. Despite my persistence, that idea never panned out. Instead, I started following police officers from other agencies (and vice versa).

“So technically, I’m not the voice of the police department on Twitter. I just speak for me and for my shift and try to combine my individual persona with my professional one.”

The social media team

Ziman’s column/blog offers an alternative to the traditional structured information “push” to the community, not just in and of itself, but also in the way she works with the chief and the PIO to make sure everyone’s interests are served.

The model works so well that more departments need to consider implementing “social media teams,” groups composed of several department members with interest in representing the agency on the Internet. “Our department has 301 sworn officers (not including civilian employees) and only 1 PIO,” Ziman explains. “Our PIO can barely take a day off without being bombarded if a major incident occurs. For that reason alone, there should be more than one designated person responsible for updating information and responding to the public in these venues.”

Logical choices are school resource and DARE officers, detectives who specialize in the kinds of offenses—identity theft, or domestic violence—that demand public outreach in the name of prevention, and even administrators who seek a dialogue with the public over budgetary or policy issues.

The biggest element? Trust. “I never actually asked the Chief if I could Twitter ,” says Ziman. “I do believe he trusts that I would never disparage our police department and I am very careful to keep my tweets professional. I don’t verbalize my political beliefs or any other personal viewpoints that would not be in line with our mission.”

A good social media policy, such as the one created by the U.S. Air Force, helps manage outgoing messages and makes it easier for administrators to trust the team members transmitting them. It also ensures consistency, a critical element in public trust.

“I have noticed that citizens from my community and other City of Aurora employees are following me [on Twitter] so I think it adds to my goal of bridging the police and the community,” Ziman says. “For some citizens (who don’t break the law), my column is the only “contact” they have with a police officer. My hope is that is humanizes ALL police officers and the residents learn that we are more alike than we are different.”

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The (not so) secret life of Officer Mitty

Image: <a href=This week’s news out of the U.K. is disturbing on a number of different levels, but this op ed from the Guardian says it best:

We hope that Detective Constable Richard Horton won’t lose his job, although he has been through what may be one of the fastest disciplinary processes in police history and been given a written reprimand. He has already been doorstepped by photographers and his award-winning blog has disappeared – and a window that had opened on to the way in which policeman go about their work, bristling with insights into contemporary Britain, has been slammed shut.

In a rather Orwellian way, history is being rewritten – it is as if it had never existed. Horton won the Orwell Prize for blogging because in an increasingly competitive field he offered such a distinct voice. And because it took you to the heart of policing in a gripping way: it was old-fashioned reporting but in the new time frame of an unfolding story. In particular it reeked of somewhere local, regional, a particular part of Britain as well as the particular place of being a policeman.

The cop blogger’s value

A number of police officers blog. Some write about their jobs. Others write about their personal lives. Many include their opinions of social and political trends. And, while a few — mainly for official purposes — blog under their own names, most remain anonymous.

It is possible, of course, that the unnamed bloggers are not really cops, but instead masquerade in a bid for attention. The details they offer, however, make this unlikely. More likely is that real officers are blogging anonymously for one of two reasons: their department has a policy against blogging, or in the absence of official policy, they believe they’ll be disciplined for their activities.

Administrators’ views are not without merit. A “loose cannon” officer blogging in a negative tone about his community and/or its residents opens the department to libel lawsuits. By and large, though, anonymous officer bloggers write fairly and honestly, providing their perspective on a variety of calls, agency dynamics, and other facts of law enforcement life. Their insights are valuable to both agency and community.

They may also be valuable to the officers themselves. Writing has long been established as a way to relieve stress—to help humans process thoughts and images. Journaling works for many people, but some of us need an audience, need to feel understood.

A necessary voice

Thus administrators would do well to encourage blogging, anonymous or not. It’s okay to place restrictions if officers are talking about their work rather than themselves; honest assessments of calls can, at best, lead to embarrassed citizens, even if the officer never names them. Guidance is prudent.

But if officers are blogging fairly and honestly, they should not be punished for their voices. This side of the pond, the law enforcement blogging community lost strong voices in the late “Texas Music” and “Negative, Ghostrider” blogs, both of which were shut down (and their archives deleted) after their writers were found out.

So by all means, guide blogging officers. Read their blogs, talk to them about what they’re writing. But don’t force them out. Many will find a way back in, for starters, under a different anonymous ID.

But more importantly, the community needs their honest voices. Police have long criticized the media for “getting it wrong” when it comes to police work. Cop bloggers are a chance to get it right. Why screw that up?

Image: thelastminute via Flickr

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