Should police use social media to 'expose' people in arrests? Calif. city council debates
City Council will consider Tuesday whether to ban police from posting names, mug shots and hometowns of people taken into custody
By Ashley McBride and Michael Cabanatuan
San Francisco Chronicle
BERKELEY, Calif. — The battles between far-right activists and their opponents that have roiled Berkeley in the past two years have been organized on social media. They’ve been debated on social media. And they’ve often played out live on social media.
The question now is whether Berkeley police should be using social media to expose people they arrest in the sometimes violent clashes. The City Council will consider Tuesday whether to ban police from posting names, mug shots and hometowns of people taken into custody “unless they pose an imminent threat to public safety.”
The proposed policy stems from an Aug. 5 protest planned by two far-right-wing groups — one dubbed the Proud Boys, which didn’t show up. Still, the day drew about 400 counterprotesters who called themselves anti-fascist, or antifa.
While the demonstration was largely peaceful, police arrested 21 people and posted their booking photos, names, cities of residence and other basic information on Twitter. All were anti-fascists, according to the National Lawyers Guild, and no one has yet been charged by the Alameda County district attorney’s office.
The postings, the Lawyers Guild says, are a form of “doxing,” the practice of using social media to post personal information about a person to embarrass or discredit them. Berkeley police ended up removing the posts after complaints from city residents.
Those who back the ban on such posts include the mayor, two council members and the Lawyers Guild, which held a rally Monday challenging city leaders to step up protections for protesters who show up to fight against racism. They say the prohibition of such social media posts by police will protect such individuals from being threatened, harassed and intimidated from participating in actions protected by the First Amendment.
The council may apply the ban to protest-related offenses or extend it to all crimes. Regardless, critics of the ban worry that it would withhold public information and contribute to a less transparent Police Department.
Tweeting the mug shots and identifying information was an effort not only to satisfy media requests for public information, said Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman, but also to discourage violent conflicts in Berkeley that have been inflamed by social media.
“Berkeley has been the focus of unprecedented social media narrative used to organize conflicts and justify the use of weapons and armor in Berkeley,” Chakko said. “We wanted to send a message over social media that we do enforce laws.
“We released public records (mug shots and basic identifying information) over a media channel that people were using to foment violence.”
But people whose names and photos were splashed across the internet say the police action exposed them to threats. Jason Wallach was one of the 21 people arrested, and he no longer closes his bike shop in East Oakland alone.
After he was taken into custody during the Aug. 5 protest on suspicion of possession of a banned or dangerous weapon, Wallach’s booking photo, name and personal information were posted on Twitter. People flooded his business’ Yelp and Facebook pages with negative reviews, and he said he received threatening anonymous phone calls and texts. Now he makes sure to have someone else with him when it’s closing time.
Wallach told his story Monday at a news conference organized by the Lawyers Guild at Berkeley’s Civic Center , which is near the site of the Aug. 5 protests and other violent clashes last year between right-wing and anti-fascist groups.
“It’s pretty spooky,” Wallach said. “You don’t know the origins, you don’t know how far they’re going to go, so you have to be vigilant.”
Kate Brenner, 70, said she was arrested Aug. 5 for possession of a banned weapon, which was a banner with cardboard poles weighted with two rocks to keep it unfurled.
“When I told the police the handcuffs were too tight on me and that I was 70 years old, they said, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten yourself arrested.’ None of the fascists were arrested,” Brenner said. “As a Jew, I can’t stand on the sidelines. I won’t let the state attempt to silence me or intimidate me.”
Chakko declined to discuss individual cases. He noted that the city made it clear anything that could be used as a weapon, such as a broom, would be banned from protest sites. A long list was posted around the city, as well as on social media and in the press.
Councilwomen Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison proposed a resolution that would direct the police to refrain “from publishing or releasing the addresses or photos of people arrested under the special circumstances of civil conflicts, particularly when one party is likely to do harm to another, specifically under threat of harm from people who spread hate.”
Their proposal would also restrict police from providing identifying information requested through the California Public Records Act.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin has suggested a revised policy that would restrict police from “proactively” publishing mug shots on social media or other identifying information of people arrested in events protected by the First Amendment. However, police could still release the information to the media and in response to Public Record Act requests, he said Monday afternoon.
“We should not be impeding the First Amendment,” Arreguin said. “When the media wants information, they should have access, but we don’t want our Police Department tweeting out information and mug shots and creating a chilling effect for participants in protests.”
David Snyder, executive officer of the First Amendment Coalition, said it’s not clear whether media outlets have a legal right to booking photos, but names, cities of residence and other information on people who are arrested should always be disclosed.
“These are protections for both the public and the person being arrested,” Snyder said. “We don’t do secret arrests in this country.”