Nicholas McGehee is one of a handful of police officers in a central Florida town of about 2,500 people. He handles everything from civil matters and traffic enforcement to domestic violence and reports of homicide. But on TikTok, McGehee is better known as “Simba on Fire” and he has more than 750,000 followers.
McGehee’s videos are supposed to be funny, bordering on nonsensical, as is a hallmark of TikTok. In one clip, he takes a cartoonish approach to politically correct policing, nervously addressing a perpetrator as “buddy chum pal friend”; another shows a civilian replying to his friendly hand wave with an angry and comically high-pitched rebuff (“Not in a million years,” the civilian hollers). Behind all McGehee’s cop-themed duets is a decidedly more high-minded ambition: that viewers will come away from his videos with a more positive view of law enforcement. Many of his videos employ the popular hashtag #HumanizingTheBadge.
TikTok has a thriving community of law enforcement officers, many of whom have followings in the hundreds of thousands. Their videos range from lip-syncs and dance challenges to earnest posts about the relief of coming home after a long night on the job. Some posts are law enforcement-specific, others are riffs on memes and popular songs. Sometimes the posts are derivative: There are at least three different versions of officers lip-syncing to the chorus of Mahogany LOX’s “Take Your Man” — “I could take your mans if I want to, but lucky for you, I don’t want to” — while sitting in their cruisers or waving a pair of handcuffs.
Cops have been using social media to shape public attention long before TikTok came along: Remember the Vine cops Officer Daniels or Mike the Cop? Well, they’re on TikTok now. After Vine’s demise, Officer Daniels and Mike the Cop stayed active on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, and other cops have followed suit. Once TikTok came along, they migrated there, too. (Neither has made their identities public.) Unlike these other platforms, though, TikTok’s audience skews young — 60% of its…