This is in response to a Valley Voices column written by Rev. B.T. Lewis and Taymah Jahsi that appeared in The Bee on Feb. 10.
Rev. Lewis and Ms. Jahsi stated that according to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union the Fresno Police Department is using social media tracking technology to monitor “the social media activity of clergy, community organizers and local activists by tracking the use of nonviolent hashtags such as, but not limited to: #BlackLivesMatter, #iamunarmed, #weorganize and #ripmikebrown.”
This information is simply not true. Monitoring as described did not occur in the past and is not currently occurring.
Based on opinion pieces such as Rev. Lewis’s and Ms. Jahsi’s, as well as comments posted by readers at fresnobee.com, callers to local talk radio shows and opinions conveyed on social media, there appears to be significant confusion about the technology the Fresno Police Department is using.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Fresno Bee
We have never, nor are we now, monitoring any group’s social media postings, regardless of their political leanings or social activities. For several months, we tested several social media monitoring applications to determine if they would be valuable in our new Real Time Crime Center. The applications we tested are currently used throughout the country by law enforcement agencies as well the private sector. We tested the applications in our RTCC to determine which ones best met our needs.
One company’s product includes a feature that allows a keyword search that includes the hash-tagged names that the ACLU report listed. Our department did not need nor use the keyword search to monitor the activity or postings of any groups during the time we tested the product.
At the end of our trial period with these applications we ceased using them. I believe the confusion over the issue of FPD allegedly using social media monitoring was caused by the ability of the products we tested to allow for keyword searches of such things as illegal drug terms, weapons terms, suicide terms and group names.
Adding to some people’s confusion is the fact that we also used and continue to use a product called Beware by Intrado. This is not used as a social media monitoring tool by FPD and has a different purpose than the social media monitoring applications we tested.
Beware uses commercial and public data to quickly provide information for officers responding to emergency incidents. Beware is similar to other popular services that provide commercial data, such as LexisNexis. However Beware is location-based and quickly provides names of individuals who are most likely residing at the addresses where officers are responding.
In addition, Beware can provide contact phone numbers, relatives and their contact numbers, criminal history, and hyperlinks to any public social media posts found on the Internet connected to an individual. Beware assigns a potential threat level based on criminal history and social media postings. Levels can be red, yellow or green, depending on the weight the algorithm gives the various criminal history and postings. It is then up to an operator in the RTCC to distill the information to determine if it’s relevant or not, with only relevant information sent to responding officers to avoid overloading them.
After hearing concerns over the color-coded threat levels and collecting of public social media posts, we worked with Intrado to eliminate those features for the Fresno Police Department. Presently, if a name record contains criminal history information, Beware places an asterisk next to the name to alert the RTCC operator to its presence. The color-coding has been eliminated, as well as any display of public social media postings.
I have met with many people, including members of the Fresno City Council, as well Rev. Lewis, and explained all of the above information.
My staff and I are very sensitive to privacy concerns, particularly pertaining to political and social activities. We have not and will not use social media monitoring to implement enforcement actions against legal activities, nor to target a group for on-going monitoring that is unrelated to any public safety issue.
Jerry Dyer is the police chief of Fresno.