BERLIN — Sporting a bullet-proof vest with Berlin's official city crest, gun in holster, lockers in the background, Mia Dagbok starts her workday with... snap! A quick selfie.
The 24-year-old police officer has over 36,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts photos of herself at work. Dagbok also has a podcast and a blog, Diary of a Policewoman, where she describes her daily life, writing about gender equality and the bond between police officers.
The policewoman has been on the job for around five years, and for the past three she has been one of a growing number of Instacops, influencers in uniform who are building a public profile through social media, podcasts and blogs. As they attract attention, they've also triggered a heated debate around how much police officers should reveal about themselves and their work. At issue is the blurred line, in the such cases, between public servant and private citizen.
Many police trainees don't realize that even posting a selfie where they're identifiable can have significant consequences.
Dagbok describes herself as a "police officer, dog mom and human being." She shares pictures of herself relaxing on the sofa with her dog Maya and going for walks along the beach in Denmark. She has even posted about which credit card and bank she uses — that one got almost 4,000 likes — and is represented, in fact, by an influencer agency.
Revealing details about her private life and promoting products on the same platform where she posts about her professional life leaves Dagbok open to criticism, according to Benjamin Jendro from Berlin's police union. He says that for the general public it can be difficult to differentiate between official police statements and individual influencers posting about their work.
Many police trainees don't realize that even posting a selfie where they're identifiable can have significant consequences: It can make it almost impossible for them to serve as undercover officers at a later date. Police officers who post about their love for shoot-'em-up games in the evening and then shoot a gun as part of their work the next day have to understand that this may come back to bite them. Jendro generally warns them against mixing their personal and professional lives. He runs seminars to educate them about the pitfalls of social media.
There are no official figures about the number of police officers who have a social media presence. There are also no consistent regulations about what they are allowed to post online. There are different guidelines in different states — and sometimes none at all. Jendro says that in Berlin, the police are too lax when it comes to officers posting about their work. In the German capital, there has been a wave of officers posting selfies in uniform. Jendro estimates that the number of Instacops is in triple figures.
Police officers have a fundamental duty to their superiors, to the state and to loyalty. They have a duty to remain neutral and abide by a code of conduct, to avoid bringing the institution into disrepute. Some German states have more specific rules. For example, in Baden-Württemberg police officers aren't allowed to post selfies that show the state crest.
Some police authorities, on the other hand, have realized that they can benefit from their Instacops. In Lower Saxony the police want to allow officers who are active on social media to do so with official approval. The police have verified the accounts of more than 20 officers, who coordinate with the social media department to post about their day-to-day work.
Cutting a fine figure
Posting work-related photos is always a tricky balance. For police officers it's particularly delicate — but very popular. Julian Kawohl, who researches the phenomenon at Berlin's University of Applied Sciences, says the officers post because social media answers a need for approval and validation. Their work is often hard and they have to face a lot of criticism and conflict on a day-to-day basis.
As online influencers, it's comparatively easy to get positive feedback. "A uniform makes people look sexy, whether it's a pilot or a police officer," says Kawohl. He says teachers use YouTube as a platform for spreading knowledge, whereas police officers use Instagram or TikTok to show off their toned bodies in uniform.
German police officer Adrienne Koleszcar posting a picture of herself on Instagram. — Photo: adrienne_koleszar
It's difficult to strike the right balance between showing their personalities and remaining neutral. Former Dresden police officer Adrienne Koleszár knows only too well how easily mixing work as a police officer with social media can get out of hand. She shot to fame as Germany's "sexiest" policewoman, posting photos of herself working out in sportswear on Instagram. But it was a photo of her in uniform that secured her breakthrough as an influencer. It showed Koleszár standing in front of a patrol car, her hair braided, gazing into the middle distance.
After she posted the photo, it was picked up by the press, who dubbed her "hot policewoman." Her followers shot up to 5,000, then 10,000. Today the 36-year-old has half a million. Koleszár left the police around a year ago and now works as an influencer, podcaster and content producer.
A "bikini ultimatum"
She first made waves when her boss gave her a "bikini ultimatum," after she took a six-month unpaid leave to promote swimwear. Envy among her colleagues and the public reaction prompted her employer to give her a stark choice: police officer or influencer. At first Koleszár decided to stay with the police, but then she had to move to desk work for health reasons, and she eventually quit. "It was a slipped disc that forced me to give it up," says Koleszár.
"Selfies in police uniform reach a far wider audience."
When she speaks about her career, it's clear that although she sought fame as an Instacop, it started to get away from her. "I don't know what people found so cool about that police photo. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that uniforms are associated with stripteases for some people," she says. Koleszár now promotes cars, holidays and cosmetics. She still profits from her image as a former policewoman and recently launched a podcast.
Striking a balance
Communications specialist Stefan Jarolimek, who teaches at the police academy, understands the appeal for young police officers who want to build a fan community on social media. "Selfies in police uniform reach a far wider audience." Fostering an image of themselves as a police officer with a toned body and healthy lifestyle increases people's chances of gaining sponsors, he says.
Many companies know that they can sell more through posts from attractive police officers than traditional adverts. But if police officers pose with protein shakes or branded sports clothes, they're breaking their commitment to neutrality. They need to get official approval for any promotions, and it's unlikely the authorities will agree to let them appear in police uniform.
One of the most successful Instacops is Felix Leistikow. He is an expert at keeping his personal and professional lives separate. The 26-year-old, a federal police officer who is currently in training to move up the ranks, has over 100,000 followers on his Instagram account, where he focuses on sport.
The former elite rower posts photos of himself running, playing basketball or relaxing on a sun lounger: strictly personal life. For this account he uses his mother's surname, while at work he goes by his own surname. He promotes dietary supplements and fitness trackers on his homepage, wearing stylish sports clothes — but never his uniform.
And yet, he does appear in uniform for posts bearing the hashtag #federalpolice. Each of these posts is cleared beforehand with the police department's social media team. In many ways Leistikow has become the poster boy for Instacops — he's managed to build his brand without compromising his neutrality. Above all, he wants to show that "police officers are people."
"They're not just a uniform," he says. "They have hobbies like sport and music."
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