Berkeley Police Department must reform its harmful use of social media

CITY AFFAIRS: By posting photos of those arrested during a protest, the department opened a forum of public shaming

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Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

Berkeley Police Department’s effort to deter crime by publishing the names and photos of those arrested during an Aug. 5 protest is comparable to a middle school teacher writing the names of misbehaving children on a classroom blackboard — pointless and humiliating.

When hundreds of protesters and counterprotesters flooded Downtown Berkeley for a “No to Marxism” demonstration, Berkeley police arrested 20 people and tweeted many of their names, photos, ages and cities of residence. The department’s decision to post this information about those arrested before having filed any formal charges against them merely subjected them to public shaming.

Just because an officer arrested someone does not mean the individual will be formally charged with a criminal offense — let alone found guilty of that crime. And many of those arrested were taken into custody for possession of a banned item, which included anything from helmets to ice picks. The public doesn’t know if these individuals were in possession of serious weapons or if they were carrying something as innocuous as a bike helmet. Without this distinction, the public is free to assume the worst about these people.

The department has defended its actions, stating that it is required to make information regarding arrests available to the public. But there is a world of difference between publishing a list of names on a city webpage and posting more personal details, such as photographs, on a more widely accessed social media platform. Not many people would go out of their way to research an individual on a city website, whereas many people could happen upon this information as they scroll through Twitter.

Although the photos of the people who were arrested have since been removed from the department’s Nixle alert page, they have already been immortalized in downloads, screenshots and retweets. Anything posted on the internet is permanent, and BPD has made the faces of these individuals accessible to anyone.

BPD spokesperson Officer Byron White said in an email that the department’s social media accounts are used to “educate and inform the community about public safety.” But these were not wanted suspects on the loose — the individuals were already in police custody, incapable of threatening anyone’s safety. There was no need for the public to identify those arrested, and the photos didn’t make the public any safer. If anything, they merely put the individuals themselves at risk of being attacked, both virtually and physically.

Our justice system hinges on the principle of presumption of innocence. But BPD’s decision to publish these photos undermines that belief system, allowing the public to assume guilt and blindly shame individuals without knowing the full story. In order to fully protect its community members, BPD must realize the consequences of misusing and abusing its social media platforms.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.