Should Police Use Social Media to “Expose” Arrestees?

Breaking the law often comes with a fair amount of public scrutiny, and “outing” arrestees’ identities is nothing new. For example, local newspapers frequently publish police logs that recount incidents from the prior week, and the mugshot publishing industry offers tabloid-style publications full of photos and booking details. The emergence of social media, however, has created new potential for police to release arrest information to a wider-range of audiences—creating new and serious risks for those who appear in police Tweets or other posts.

A recent incident in Berkeley, California demonstrates the potentially dangerous consequences of this police action, as well as its risk to police-community relations.

‘Doxxing’ and the risk to public safety

In August 2018, the Berkeley Police Department arrested more than a dozen protesters and counter-protesters at a “No To Marxism in Berkeley” rally. This incident was just the latest in a series of violent clashes between opposing political protesters in the city. Protests had led to a riot in February 2017 after Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the University of California, and several other violent skirmishes had erupted throughout 2017 and 2018.

After the August 2018 arrests, the police immediately tweeted names, ages, city of residence, and mugshots of the arrestees. A California Public Records Act request later revealed this action was pursuant to an internal “Twitter protocol for mug shots” developed to address “social media-driven protests” like the “No to Marxism” demonstration.

The protocol was designed to create a “counter-narrative” to media coverage that criticized police for not doing enough to safeguard their community from violence or to protect the First Amendment rights of conservative speakers and protesters. By posting mugshots of people arrested, Berkeley police had hoped to use social media to demonstrate their ability and intention to enforce the law.

However, many activists and other critics saw the police’s action differently and accused the department of “doxxing” those arrested. Doxxing—the spreading of personal information such as name, employer, address, and other contact information—is an increasingly common tactic used by activists to intimidate opponents. But doxxing can pose significant risks to its victims by sharing their location and contact information with those who may wish to harass, intimidate, or physically harm them.

Further, once information has been released on the Internet, it is impossible to fully remove. After facing intense backlash, Berkely police deleted the Tweets. However, the individuals’ names, mugshots and other information are still available on some websites that encourage doxxing.

Avoiding damage to the public trust

The incident in Berkeley serves as an example of what happens when police do not fully evaluate the costs and benefits of a new protocol. The police were faced with a serious problem, and the social media tactic offered a potential benefit of promoting public safety and the rule of law.

However, this tactic came with costs that seem not to have been fully considered, including loss of individual privacy and the potential for more violence or intimidation. Beyond the harms to individual citizens posed by doxxing, the Berkeley Police Department may not have fully considered that many community members would view the protocol as a “chilling and silencing device” that infringed on the community’s right to protest without the threat of intimidation.

The public’s response was highly critical, but it is also instructive. Much of the cost in terms of loss of public trust could have been avoided had the public been consulted prior to the police action. Had public input been sought and a cost-benefit analysis completed prior to enactment, perhaps the social media protocol could have been modified to promote the police department’s needs, but in a way the Berkeley community found acceptable. For example, the Berkeley police could have modified their Tweets to only include those arrestees who posed an immediate public safety threat, or to only contain information on the number of arrests and the need to follow the law without releasing personal identifiers.

The public outcry in this case was so strong that Berkeley lawmakers quickly moved to pass a resolution limiting how police can use social media to release arrestee information. A before-the-fact cost-benefit analysis by the police department may well have avoided this reaction and engendered goodwill.

Departments will always be confronted with the costs of new policies, whether they consciously consider them or not. Better, therefore, to avoid the kind of public controversy that occurred in Berkeley and engage in front-end accountability prior to implementation.

This post was written by Policing Project externs Michael Rebuck, Leah Rosenberg and Miranda Murillo.