Anticipating a protest during the commute hours Thursday evening, BART Police took the unprecedented step of shutting down cellular service at the Civic Center Station. For unknown reasons, the protest–an planned action reportedly in response to the shooting death of San Francisco’s Charles Hill–never ended up happening.
BART Police Deputy Chief Benson Fairow says that at first, web postings on an activist site indicated that a peaceful protest was planned for the Civic Center Station. Later updates, Fairow says, “indicated that demonstrators were planning on committing crimes.” What sorts of crime is unclear, but BART police were concerned that such a protest, on the platform level, could result in fights, injury, or someone falling on the tracks. “That’s when it became a safety issue,” Fairow says. BART Police were placed on high alert and commuters were warned to expect a disruption.
Fairow says there were further indications that protesters were planning on passing information about the movements of BART Police during the protest through cellphones. Which is a main reason police decided to shut down the cellular signal on the Civic Center’s underground platform. The mechanics of how it was done are unclear, but no cell phone “jammers” (which are illegal) were used, Fairow says.
Cell signals on BART’s platforms are maintained by private cell phone providers, “as a service to our customers,” Fairow says. BART’s contract with these companies allows police to shut down the signal when they find it necessary, a clause developed because BART, as many transit systems, “is a prime terrorism target,” Fairow says.
Michael Risher, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said he’s never heard of a government agency taking such an action. “Not in this country,” Risher said. “This is the kind of thing we hear about happening in oppressive regimes.”
Fairow called such comparisons “unfortunate,” but agreed that he’d never heard of another agency shutting down signals.
Risher also pointed out that “jamming” cell phones, which is technologically different than shutting down a signal, was recently dismissed by the Federal Communications Commission as a law enforcement tool. Prisons and jails have sought permission of the FCC to jam the signal around lockups to prevent inmates from communicating via smuggled cell phones. One of the reasons for the FCC’s continued opposition to jamming, Risher says, is that shutting down cell signals can interfere with safety.
“People use cell phones for everything from calling 911, to communicating with a sick friend, to getting in touch about service disruptions on BART,” Risher says, pointing out that BART commonly has service delays and stoppages which have nothing to do with protests. Moreover, Risher says, “the government has a duty to allow people to assemble and speak out, even if it causes a disruption.”
Fairow, meanwhile, says that protests are not permitted on BART platforms, but that there are places in BART stations, outside the paid area, where protesters are welcome to state their views. As for the ability for passengers to communicate with police and each other, Fairow says he did weigh that safety risk. “We had police on every train,” he says, and those who needed to get in touch with friends or family could move to the above-ground area of the station for a cell signal.
Asked where BART will draw the safety versus free-speech line when it comes to shutting down the cell signal in the future, Fairow says the question is open. “It’s a tool in our toolbox,” he says.