The Berkeley Police Department posted the mugshots and personal information of 15 activists on August 5, who were arrested while counter-protesting at a far-right rally.
The people whose names, ages, and mugshots Berkeley police blasted out on social media had not been arraigned or convicted of any crime, and the department’s decision to tweet this information sparked immediate criticism and concern that it was opening arrestees up to harassment.
Now, documents obtained through a public records request and released by Lucy Parsons Labs reveal details about the Berkeley Police Department’s (BPD) controversial use of its Twitter account.
“Given the extraordinary, complex, and unprecedented nature of social media in shaping and creating conflict in Berkeley, the Berkeley Police Department used social media to help create a counter-narrative,” reads the department’s protocol for posting mugshots.
Berkeley city communications director Matthai Chakko said tweeting mugshots of arrestees was an attempt to combat a narrative online that suggested Berkeley police’s failure to enforce the rule of law justified the use of violence by citizens.
The tweets, according to Chakko, were one of many strategies BPD has tried in responding to what he calls an unprecedented number of violent, social media-driven protests. “We’ve also tried to educate the public about provocateurs, and hosted community forums,” he told Shadowproof.
In emails, BPD celebrated the “unusually deep and broad publication and attention” of their tweets, noting the number of retweets, likes, and engagements they received. But much of that attention was from far-right Twitter users.
Although BPD later deleted the tweets after public outcry, the content spread like wildfire and was, in some cases, re-posted in original tweets from other users. One Republican strategist with thousands of followers re-posted the list of arrestees. “Let’s make them famous,” he wrote.
“Outlets like Fox News are publishing those mugshots in articles about the event,” wrote online harassment expert Caroline Sinders and Joan Donovan, lead researcher at Data and Society.
“Perhaps the Berkeley Police Department doesn’t realize that the information it’s releasing will be misused. But in this case, releasing information about arrestees will cause them to be targeted by white vigilante mobs. This is not harm reduction but harm amplification.”
One individual arrested on August 5 said that he and other arrestees faced harassment, including death threats, in response to BPD posting the information on Twitter. “And for what? A public relations campaign against us? We weren’t even charged with crimes.”
Another arrestee noted that his business suffered after BPD posted his information, which was was inundated with retaliatory Yelp reviews.
Sinders and Donovan noted that many white supremacist groups seek to identify and harm anti-fascist protesters—including by running websites with bounties for tracking down people alleged to be leftists.
“Police departments tweeting without due process about alleged crimes is doxing that endangers those protecting their communities. Police departments should not be above platforms’ policies,” they declared.
This was not the first time that BPD posted the personal information of people arrested at demonstrations on social media. Last September, Berkeley police tweeted the pictures and names of another fifteen arrested protesters.
When asked about concerns that the tweets could expose arrestees to harassment, Chakko noted the information is public record. “The top request from the news media is about arrests and booking messaging from these days.”
While it’s true that details about BPD’s arrests could be obtained through public records requests, the documents indicate that the department’s strategy was not to facilitate easier communication with the press or to increase transparency with the public. Instead, the records convey that the goal was to establish a narrative that the Berkeley police had protests under control.
Chakko emphasized that BPD’s responsibility is to facilitate the expression of free speech. But Andrea Pritchett, a community organizer with Berkeley Copwatch, said the effect has been to silence political expression in Berkeley.
“BPD’s strategy itself is clearly intended to reduce attendance at First Amendment events,” Pritchett said. “This quietly chills. People are scared to stand with a sign because the Berkeley police says at times that signs are a banned weapon.”
The police department has considered flagpoles, bandanas, and masks to be “banned weapon” at protests. The National Lawyers Guild maintains this is unconstitutional.
The protocol outlined in the documents also states that it applies only to arrests that are “protest related.”
Pritchett is concerned that if someone is arrested for carrying a “banned weapon” for holding a cardboard sign at a protest this issue could be raised again if they are stopped in the future by police.
Following the September incident, two Berkeley city council members put together a proposal to stop BPD from posting information about arrestees online in most cases.
A vote on the policy was delayed, but at a September 25 meeting that ran deep into the night, Berkeley adopted a proposal prohibiting police from posting mugshots of people who are arrested, unless they pose a threat to the public.
“Except as required by state and federal law, no employee of the Berkeley Police Department or any other City of Berkeley employee shall actively broadcast through Twitter, Facebook, Nixle, or other social media, the addresses, legal names, booking photos or other identifying information of people arrested for non-violent offenses by the Berkeley Police Department or other departments acting in mutual aid at first amendment events, as defined in Berkeley General Order C-64,” the passed motion reads.
For some activists whose personal information is still circulating online, the adoption of the proposal is not a clear victory.
“The damage has already been done,” one arrested activist said. “Berkeley police can still do the same thing, they’re just more motivated to overcharge us and slap us with violent offenses.”
Shadowproof withheld their name so they could speak without fear of further harassment and retaliation.
Chakko reiterated that the circumstances were exceptional when pressed about the strategy’s implications for political expression. “We believe everything we did was correct and appropriate.”