For decades, police departments all over have made efforts to show the general public a more friendly face than what the enforcement role often portrays. From the days of a beat cop who would interact daily with residents and business owners, this type of community police work evolved into regular appearances at auto shows, home shows and other similar events. The formula was pretty simple: set up a booth, man it with affable officers who not only did the standard meet and greet, but answered all manner of questions, essentially becoming a friendly educational resource.
The arrival of the Covid era changed all that. No longer were there opportunities to go out and meet the public face to face. Like many other organizations, Toronto Police Service needed to find a new way to do certain parts of their work. How does a police force reach out to the public during a pandemic? Almost accidentally, they found their solution in the form of PC Sean Shapiro.
An admitted tech nerd, Shapiro is also a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast who understands the role that motorized vehicles play in the joy of living for so many people.
Like many two-wheeled enthusiasts of a certain age, PC Shapiro came by his love of motorcycles thanks to a childhood ride-on toy and watching the hit TV show CHIPS, about the adventures of a pair of California Highway Patrol officers who rode motorcycles.
As a sixteen-year-old, Shapiro graduated from a push bike to a Honda Hawk 400, bought in a partnership with a buddy, despite the concerns of Mom. Next up came a slightly more racy Kawasaki GPZ 550 and then an even more powerful Yamaha 11 Special. From there, Shapiro returned to Kawasaki in the form of a Vulcan 1500 D2, suitable for his 6’ 5” frame before acquiring the Honda Valkyrie Interstate that he now owns.
As often happens to even the best of riders, bad luck caught up with Shapiro as he was returning to the station near the end of his shift. As the officer slowed to move into the left turn lane, a Lexus appeared from behind a parked panel van and made contact with the motorcycle and rider. Although a low-speed crash, the injuries put Shapiro on the sidelines for some time and are still a source of pain several years later.
In his previous career, Shapiro had worked with computers, web design, and photography. Upon his return to work, the officer wasn’t ready to go back on the front lines, but with his skill set it made sense for him to take on a back-end role in redeveloping the force’s website. That role evolved into a plan to increase Toronto Police’s presence online, but always with Shapiro as the techie guy behind the camera, never in front of it. The problem was that nobody else on the force had any interest in being on camera.
“It was never my intention to be in front of the camera” Shapiro says, “But nobody else wants to be on camera. By process of elimination, I am the only guy standing in front of it.”
Two years ago, while in a meeting, Superintendent Scott Baptist asked “why aren’t we on TikTok?” At the time, everyone was using the platform to dance and lip-sync, so the question wasn’t really taken very seriously. Not until a trio posted a video of themselves skateboarding on the Gardiner Expressway in the Spring of 2020. Shapiro immediately set up an account, @TrafficServices in order to monitor the situation and be able to make comment.
Having a bunch of video on hand which had been produced for the Arrive Alive program, that featured officers answering questions about impaired driving, Shapiro decided to post them to the account and see what happened. The response was instant and before long they were creating content specifically for the platform. One day not long after, Shapiro decided to go live and it has just taken off from there.
When I spoke with Shapiro a couple of weeks ago, he said “I never thought it would get this big. We’re at 179,000 followers. I was thrilled, and I mean thrilled, when we passed 18,000, because 18,000 is where our Twitter account is and I thought that was big”. As I am writing this, it is up to 181.2K!
Even watching the live Q & A style videos casually, it is readily apparent that there are a lot of folks out there who are looking for the “secret menu” of traffic policing. When someone says “I know the limit is 100 KM/H but isn’t it alright to go 115?”, something really interesting has been happening. Other users are chiming in using common sense with statements like “You do know that he’s a cop, right? You realize he can’t give you permission to speed, right?” The community of followers has become sort of self-moderating, with users often saying things that Shapiro can’t say in his professional role.
Shapiro says that while they don’t rank the questions asked, there are most definitely some that are asked more frequently than others. One of the most common questions is regarding the legality of window tint on a vehicle. “How dark can I go?” “Can I have under glow” is another frequent flyer. Of course how much can I speed is a popular question, but he also receives a lot of inquiries about how slow can someone drive without getting a ticket.
Another topic which Shapiro points out is a tough one is modifications. Many people want to personalize their vehicle, and a lot of them want to know exactly what they can customize legally. It is tough, because there are simply too many variables to just post a list of legal modifications.
Having been involved in developing training materials for the department in the past, the opportunity to educate the public comes naturally to Shapiro. He says that an unexpected offshoot of the popularity of the TikTok presence is that non-traffic police officers have started using it as a resource, often reaching out to Shapiro to see how they can best handle unusual situations. The account has become a reference library for civilians and police alike.
The popularity of the TikTok account has turned Shapiro into somewhat of a celebrity in the IRL world as well. “I get it when people from the industry recognize me” Shapiro says, “But I’ve been recognized all over the place, and it is from people you wouldn’t expect”. . From the steakhouse owner in London, Ontario who excitedly explained how much his wife loves Shapiro to the gaggle of kids on bikes in a park who were chattering about “that guy from Tik Tok”, the officer is approached regularly by folks who have seen his work. “It is very cool to be approached by people from such a broad audience.”
Not only is @TrafficServices changing the public face of policing in Toronto, but it is changing the way that police investigate crimes by working directly with TikTok and a growing network of Canadian police TikTokers to evaluate how the platform can help solve crimes.
When asked what the future may bring for the platform, Shapiro points out that he has been dubbed Ontario’s TikTok traffic cop by radio show host Jerry Agar, and he now regularly appears on Agar’s radio show, while Agar drops into the TikTok realm on occasion too. The network of connections and conversations that have been created through the platform far exceeds their expectations and has brought great support from both the public and the police community. Shapiro says that via TikTok, they have the best of both worlds and are getting great bang for the buck because they are able to talk to a huge number of people all at the same time.
That is not to say that the program is without detractors. There are those who have complained that paying a cop to be on TikTok is a waste of taxpayer money. Shapiro points out that “we are doing this and it is the most efficient way of doing this and people apparently like it”. If you think about it, paying one guy to reach hundreds of thousands of people really is more cost-effective than paying 4 or 5 guys to attend a consumer show every week.
Despite still navigating the residual effects of that motorcycle crash a few years ago, the future is exciting for PC Shapiro, as he continues to explore the possibilities that TikTok provides for modern policing. Still passionate about motorcycles, Shapiro has not been back on a motorcycle since his crash, although his Valkyrie remains licensed, insured, and ready for the day that he decides that the time has come.