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Cellphone service cutoffs should be rare, BART says

August 24, 2011 |  2:31 pm

Protesters yell during a BART protest in San Francisco on Monday. 
Cellphone service in Bay Area train stations will be turned off only under drastic circumstances, according to a policy officials began outlining Wednesday.

After an emotional, three-hour hearing, members of BART's board of directors said the policy 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 board meeting was called in response to escalating protests over the transit agency’s actions -- demonstrations that have disrupted the evening commute on at least three recent occasions and stranded thousands of people trying to get home.

The string of protests was launched after the July 3 fatal shooting of Charles Hill, an intoxicated homeless man allegedly armed with a knife, by a BART police officer. Eight days after the shooting, demonstrators converging on downtown San Francisco stations disrupted the service of nearly 100 trains during the peak of rush hour.

When BART officials got wind of a protest set for Aug. 11, during which demonstrators planned to use cellphones to organize and evade law enforcement, BART officials decided to cut cellphone 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. They were going to "put the public at risk."

That protest was averted, but word of the decision to cut cellphone service led to accusations that the transit agency had trampled on protesters’ and customers’ civil rights. Two more angry rush-hour demonstrations followed. Various BART-related websites were hacked.

Bob Franklin, BART board president, called the Wednesday meeting to hear from the public. Although the discussion underscored the tension created by trying to ensure  passenger safety and civil rights, the response at the meeting was 2-1 against the decision to cut cellphone service.

A leader of the 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."

But Austin Thomas, a BART employee and vice president of the agency’s chapter of SEIU Local 1021, said his union’s message is simple: "Safety. Safety of the riders, safety of the public, safety of the workers and even safety of the protesters."

While Thomas said he applauded the demonstrators for their organizing, he said their tactics endanger passengers, who could get pushed onto the tracks from crowded platforms. The appropriate forum for protest, he said, was the BART board room.

At the end of the meeting, Franklin ordered BART staff to begin crafting a policy for cellphone service cutoffs -- one that would follow suggestions by the ACLU and allow for disruption of service only if there is "an extreme case when our passengers are imminently at risk."


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-- Maria L. La Ganga in Oakland

 Photo: Protesters at a BART station in San Francisco on Monday. Credit: Jeff Chiu/ Associated Press