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BART Debates When It's OK to Cut Cell Service

Board says "extreme emergency" would justify a shutdown, but can't agree on what that means

BART should be able to shut off cell phone service in an extreme emergency, most members of its board of directors said Wednesday. But those directors could not agree on what would qualify as such an emergency.

They also said that BART staff should have the power to shut off cell service without consulting the board. They did not specify which BART staffers could have that power.

The directors made their comments at a special public meeting to get reaction to BART's decision to shut off the service on Aug. 11 in order to thwart a planned demonstration, which never materialized. That decision has sparked a series of protests and cyberattacks.

By the end of Wednesday's meeting, the board agreed to create a policy laying out the conditions under which the transit agency can shut down wireless networks. Bob Franklin, the BART board president, said the agency would consult with civil liberties groups like the ACLU — which has criticized the shutdown as a violation of the First Amendment — and have a draft policy in two to four weeks.

BART board members were divided about whether the wireless shutdown was necessary. Director Thomas Blalock, who said he was briefed on the shutdown before it occurred, said he thought it was a good idea at the time. He also said his constituents were pleased because it prevented a demonstration from disrupting their commute.

But other board members, including Tom Radulovich and Robert Raburn, did not believe the threat of an "illegal" protest justified cutting cell service on BART station platforms.

BART board member Lynette Sweet, the board’s most outspoken critic of the shutdown, grilled agency staff about the decision. She asked whether the BART legal department was consulted beforehand — and whether the Federal Communications Commission was notified.

The answer to both questions was no.

Sherwood Wakeman, the interim BART general manager who signed off on the decision, stammered and said that while legal counsel was present at the meeting, he made the call himself because of his previous experience as BART’s general counsel.

The FCC is currently investigating the incident. An FCC commissioner said at a conference Wednesday that BART’s critics have “very valid” points, CNET reported

Wednesday's meeting was lightly attended, especially considering the intensity of the demonstrations — there have been three in the last six weeks, all during rush hour. Most attendees spoke out against the cell phone shutdown, including some members of the unions representing BART employees.

The string of protests began in response to the July 3 shooting of Charles Hill, a homeless man, by a BART police officer.

Another demonstration is planned for Monday, perhaps extending to the East Bay this time. At the most recent protest, BART police at Civic Center station moved quickly to arrest protesters on the platform, where the agency prohibits demonstrations. BART police Chief Kenton Rainey said his officers would take the same approach next time.

Cyberactivists who’ve been organizing protests have also called on BART spokesman Linton Johnson to resign. Johnson has said he proposed the idea of shutting down cell phone service.

On Thursday morning, a Twitter feed used by Anonymous, a loose-knit group of so-called hacktivists, retweeted a link to a website showing partially nude pictures of Johnson. 

BART spokesman Jim Allison condemned the action.

“To do something so personal and damaging is just beyond the pale,” said Allison. “I haven’t seen the photos nor will I look at them, but these cyberattacks and this specifically I condemn, and I believe BART as a district would condemn.”

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