The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) instructs officers to collect social media account information and email addresses when they interview people they have detained, according to documents obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.
The Brennan Center filed public records requests with LAPD and police departments from other major cities, finding among other things that “the LAPD instructs its officers to broadly collect social media account information from those they encounter in person using field interview (FI) card.” The LAPD initially resisted making documents available but supplied over 6,000 pages after the Brennan Center sued the department.
One such document, a memo from then LAPD chief Charlie Beck in May 2015, said that “when completing a FI report, officers should ask for a person’s social media and e-mail account information and include it in the ‘Additional Info’ box.” That includes Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook profiles, the memo said.
This may be an unusual policy even though the LAPD has been doing it for years. “Apparently, nothing bars officers from filling out FI cards for each interaction they engage in on patrol,” wrote Mary Pat Dwyer, a lawyer and fellow in the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Notably, our review of information about FI cards in 40 other cities did not reveal any other police departments that use the cards to collect social media data, though details are sparse.” The center reviewed “publicly available documents to try to determine if other police departments routinely collect social media during field interviews” but found that “most are not very transparent about their practices,” Dwyer told Ars Friday.
While people can refuse to give officers their social media account details, many people may not know their rights and could feel pressured into providing the information, Dwyer told Ars. “Courts have found that stopping individuals and asking for voluntary information doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment and people are free not to respond,” she told us. “However, depending on the circumstances of a stop, people may not feel that freedom to walk away without responding. They may not know their rights, or they may be hoping to quickly end the encounter by providing information in order to ensure it doesn’t escalate.”
The Brennan Center has also been seeking police department records since January 2020 from Boston, New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, but is still fighting to get all the requested information.
Data Enables ‘Large-Scale Monitoring’
A field interview is defined as “the brief detainment of an individual, whether on foot or in a vehicle, based on reasonable suspicion, for the purpose of determining the individual’s identity and resolving the officer’s suspicions concerning criminal activity,” according to an International Association of Chiefs of Police model policy for field interviews and pat-down searches. Field-interview cards can play a significant role in investigations.
“These cards facilitate large-scale monitoring of both the individuals on whom they are collected and their friends, family, and associates—even people suspected of no crime at all,” Dwyer wrote. “Information from the cards is fed into Palantir, a system through which the LAPD aggregates data from a wide array of sources to increase its surveillance and analytical capabilities.”
Officers apparently have wide discretion in choosing which people they record information about and, in some cases, have falsified the information that has been entered. Last year, The Los Angeles Times found that an LAPD “division under scrutiny for officers who allegedly falsified field interview cards that portrayed people as gang members has played an outsized role in the production of those cards.” The LAPD’s “Metropolitan Division made up about 4 percent of the force but accounted for more than 20 percent of the department’s field interview cards issued during a recent 18-month period,” the Times wrote. Police officers can fill out these cards “to document encounters they have with anyone they question on their beat,” the report also said.