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Brennan Center Files Public Records Requests for Information on Social Media Monitoring

The Brennan Center for Justice filed public records requests in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Washington, DC seeking information about their police departments’ use of social media monitoring.

Last Updated: September 15, 2021
Published: February 3, 2020

On January 30, 2020, the Brennan Center for Justice filed public records requests in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, and Baltimore seeking information about their police departments’ use of social media monitoring. On December 15, 2020, the Brennan Center filed a similar request to the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in conjunction with Data for Black Lives. 

“Social media monitoring” refers to the use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to gather information about people, groups, or activities. Police departments may use third-party programs to identify and compile social media information based on keywords, geographic location, or other data. They may also conduct manual searches of social media posts or utilize undercover accounts to connect with individuals or groups through aliases.

Social media monitoring efforts are often implemented in ways that have a disparate impact on youth, marginalized communities, and activists. For example, in New York City, the NYPD arrested Jelani Henry on attempted murder charges based largely on his social media associations and pictures with members of a local “crew.” Jelani was only connected to the group due to his proximity — both online and in real life — to his brother, who was a member of the crew, and other neighborhood friends. He spent two years incarcerated on Rikers Island, due in large part to this “social media evidence,” before his case was ultimately dropped and he was released. In Boston, a public records request from the ACLU of Massachusetts revealed that the police had contracted with a software company, Geofeedia, to monitor Muslim communities across several social media platforms – tracking commonplace Arabic words like “ummah,” which means community. In Los Angeles, officers monitored the Twitter posts of outspoken critics of the police, and in Baltimore, the police used Geofeedia to monitor the social media posts and locations of protestors in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015.

The public lacks adequate information about the current capabilities and limitations of police social media monitoring operations. The Brennan Center seeks information regarding the policies governing police use of social media monitoring, data collection, data retention, data sharing, record-keeping, third party applications, audits, training, and legal challenges.

See the Brennan Center’s public records requests below.

Public Records Request - Baltimore

Update, July 19, 2021:  On October 20, 2020, the Baltimore Police Department issued an incomplete response to the Brennan Center’s request, providing records responsive to only four of the seventeen categories of documents requested. On December 7, 2020 we submitted a request to the Baltimore Public Information Act Ombudsman’s office for mediation. Through mediation, the Brennan Center was able to obtain a response (available here) showing that the Baltimore Police Department has discontinued its use of social media monitoring software.

Public Records Request - Los Angeles

Update, September 15, 2021: The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) provided a partial response to the Brennan Center’s California Public Records Act Request on February 24, 2020. On March 12, 2020, LAPD produced one further document and closed the request. The LAPD’s limited production was demonstrably deficient, omitting documents the Center had reason to believe exist and revealing that LAPD failed to conduct an adequate search for records as required by law. On November 17, 2020, the Brennan Center, through its pro bono counsel Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP, filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, challenging the LAPD’s failure to disclose responsive documents. In response, LAPD produced supplemental documents in March and April 2021. On September 8, 2021, the Brennan Center published a blog post about LAPD’s use of social media monitoring tools and a resource page compiling the documents produced by LAPD, and The Guardian published an article about the documents and the impact of the LAPD’s collection and monitoring of social media.

Public Records Request - Boston

Update, March 29, 2021: The Boston Police Department has failed to produce any documents in response to the Brennan Center’s Public Records Law Request. The Brennan Center contacted the Director of Public Records for the City of Boston in September 2020 to discuss the Department’s nonresponsiveness. When that approach failed to elicit any production, we filed an appeal with the Massachusetts Supervisor of Records on December 22, 2020 and received a favorable decision. We are currently awaiting production of records.

Public Records Request - New York City

Update, August 4, 2021: On July 13, 2021, NYPD issued a partial response to the Brennan Center's public records request. The Brennan Center anticipates additional documents in the coming weeks. 

Public Records Request - Washington, DC

Update, August 4, 2021: The Brennan Center submitted a similar public records request to the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in conjunction with Data for Black Lives on December 15, 2020. MPD failed to produce responsive documents by the statutory deadline and the Brennan Center is evaluating its next steps.