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BART officials craft policy for cutting cellphone service

A policy being developed by Bay Area transit officials would allow BART to cut cellphone service in its stations only under extreme circumstances.

August 25, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • A man who identified himself as Krystof speaks to the BART Board of Directors in Oakland on Wednesday. At the meeting, he said protests would end when BART disbands its police force.
A man who identified himself as Krystof speaks to the BART Board of Directors… (Paul Sakuma / Associated…)

Reporting from Oakland -- Cellphone service in Bay Area train stations would be turned off only in drastic circumstances, such as a bomb threat or hostage situation, under a policy that transit officials began formulating Wednesday.

After an emotional three-hour hearing, members of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District Board of Directors said that before the guidelines were implemented, they would undergo rigorous vetting by the public and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"If we're going to shut off cellphone service, ever, it needs to be under the most extraordinary circumstances … that I equate to 9/11 level, not the protests we thought were going to happen on Aug. 11," said board member Lynette Sweet. "We can no longer sit back and say: 'We don't like what you have to say, and we're going to stop you from saying it.' "

Wednesday's special BART board meeting was called in response to escalating protests over recent transit agency actions — demonstrations that disrupted the busy evening commute on at least three occasions in July and August, stranding thousands.

A fatal shooting July 3 by a BART police officer of Charles Hill, an intoxicated homeless man allegedly armed with a knife, sparked the current round of demonstrations. Eight days after the incident at the San Francisco Civic Center station, protesters converging on downtown terminals delayed nearly 100 trains during rush hour.

When BART officials got wind of a second protest set for Aug. 11, during which demonstrators planned to use cellphones to organize and evade law enforcement, they decided to cut cell service to downtown San Francisco stations for several hours that day.

"We felt this group was encouraging, promoting and inciting illegal behavior on our platforms in order to disrupt service," BART Police Chief Kenton W. Rainey told the board. The group and its members were going to "put the public at risk."

That protest was averted, but word of the decision to cut cell service caused an uproar, with accusations that the transit agency had trampled on protesters' and riders' civil rights. Two more angry rush-hour demonstrations followed, the most recent on Monday. Various BART-related websites were hacked.

Bob Franklin, BART board president, called the meeting Wednesday to gauge public sentiment on the issue. Although the discussion revealed the tension of attempting to balance passenger safety and civil rights, the response was 2 to 1 against the decision to cut cell service.

A leader of activist group No Justice No Bart who identified himself only as Krystof issued an ultimatum to the board: "The protests will end when you disband your police force. We … don't want you to improve your free speech policy. We already have a free speech policy. It's called the Constitution," he said.

But Austin Thomas, a BART employee and vice president of the agency's chapter of SEIU Local 1021, said his union's message was simple: "Safety. Safety of the riders, safety of the public, safety of the workers and even safety of the protesters." Thomas said the demonstrators' tactics endangered passengers, who could get pushed onto the tracks from crowded platforms.

Passengers take an average of 350,000 trips each weekday on BART trains, and nearly 200 flow into the Embarcadero Station every minute during peak evening hours.

At the end of the meeting, Franklin ordered BART staffers to begin crafting a policy. It should follow suggestions by the ACLU, he said, and allow for disruption of cell service only if there is "an extreme case when our passengers are imminently at risk."

In a letter to the board, Michael T. Risher, staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, said that "our courts have held that even private telephone carriers, whose actions are not constrained by the First Amendment, cannot shut off service simply because they believe that their customers may be using their services to facilitate crime."

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