NYPD Captain Tweets Warnings About Felons Released from Prison
CARROLL GARDENS — An NYPD commander is using Twitter to distribute the names and mugshots of convicts recently returned to his neighborhood after serving prison sentences — and his actions could result in a lawsuit.
Capt. Jeffrey Schiff, commanding officer of the 76th Precinct, which covers Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and part of Gowanus, said his goal is to protect his community and keep residents safe.
But his actions, though praised by some local residents, have caused privacy concerns among others and provoked the threat of a lawsuit from Legal Aid.
"Everyone can absorb this information and intelligently assimilate it and look out for their neighbors and look out for their community," Schiff said in an interview with DNAinfo New York.
"The only way to get the community involvement that I'm looking for is to let people know what's going on in the precinct."
Schiff, who appears to be the NYPD's first commanding officer to personally launch and update his precinct's Twitter feed, has named 10 men on @76PrecinctNYPD since it debuted in August.
Of them, six were identified in connection with a recent arrest or conviction. The four others were felons reportedly seen within the confines of the 76th Precinct — Twitter messages about them were titled "release alert" or "recidivist alert."
"Major history of DRUGS & BREAK-INS. Released & recently seen in our community," a Dec. 10 post about one named individual read.
None of the men named in the Twitter feed could be reached for comment. However, Legal Aid, which records show represented at least one of the men, is considering suing the NYPD for Schiff's release alerts, a spokeswoman said.
The organization declined to either elaborate or answer further questions.
Law experts said it was unclear on what grounds Legal Aid could base a lawsuit.
"The information is public information, it's not really a civil liberties issue," said Harold Edgar, a professor of law and technology at Columbia Law School.
Schiff said he wasn't concerned about legal action.
"If they want to sue, let them sue. They'll lose," he said.
"It's all public information, I'm just making it easier for you. Once a person is convicted, all the gloves come off, and that's it.... Is there a real difference between Twitter and what I do at community council meetings? No. What I say on Twitter is what I would say in community council meetings."
Naming and distributing the photos of suspects who have been arrested, let alone convicted, is nothing new, he pointed out.
But Rachel Barkow, who teaches criminal law at New York University's School of Law, said posting information about people who'd been released after serving their sentences was extremely unusual.
"I've seen other police departments and precincts using things like Twitter and Facebook to post people that they're looking for," she said.
"I haven't heard of anyone doing it for this. It sort of undercuts the idea of someone reentering society."
Erin Murphy, also a professor of criminal law at NYU, praised Schiff's decision to use Twitter to communicate with the community, but she also expressed concerns.
"This marks a shift from you do your time and you're supposed to be rehabilitated by the end of your time and be released back in the community, to something that's more punitive," she said.
"You make a mistake, and you're marked for life."
Schiff said he has only named serious recidivists, "guys who have been arrested 30, 40, 50 times."
What's more, crime in the 76th Precinct is down compared to the previous year for the first time in three years, perhaps indicating that the Twitter posts work, he said.
"I share the community's concern about reintegration into the community," Schiff said.
"Hopefully the perpetrator has learned from his past mistakes. But these aren't guys I've arrested one time or twice. It's the repeat offenders, who are very dangerous, who are committing crimes again and again in our neighborhood."
"Maybe they can go somewhere else," he continued.
"I'm interested in catching the criminals. I'm also interested in making this community safe, and making this community feel safe. If that means displacing them somewhere else, then that happens."