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Cop's Twitter Feed That Posted 'Release Alerts' About Ex-Cons Goes Dark

By Alan Neuhauser | January 4, 2013 6:45am | Updated on January 4, 2013 7:45am
 The 76th Precinct is located at 191 Union St. in Cobble Hill.
The 76th Precinct is located at 191 Union St. in Cobble Hill.
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DNAinfo/Heather Holland

CARROLL GARDENS — The controversial Twitter feed that a Brooklyn precinct commander used to warn residents about local felons who were released from prison has gone dark.

Sources said the NYPD ordered an end to all new posts on the Twitter account @76PrecinctNYPD, which formerly posted periodic "Release Alerts" and "Recidivist Alerts,” sharing names and photos of formerly incarcerated individuals from the neighborhood who were no longer behind bars.

The Twitter account — which was maintained by 76th Precinct commander Capt. Jeffrey Schiff —  hasn't featured a new post since Dec. 16, when it warned of a 49-year-old “Larceny Recidivist” spotted within the 76th Precinct, which covers Red Hook, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and parts of Gowanus.

 Capt. Jeffrey Schiff, seen here speaking at a 76th Precinct Community Council meeting Tuesday, May 1, 2012, was the first NYPD precinct commander to personally launch and update a precinct's Twitter feed.
Capt. Jeffrey Schiff, seen here speaking at a 76th Precinct Community Council meeting Tuesday, May 1, 2012, was the first NYPD precinct commander to personally launch and update a precinct's Twitter feed.
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Dnainfo/Heather Holland

Community Board 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman, called the NYPD’s decision “disappointing.”

“The information that we get from our local precinct is appreciated and gave the community a stronger sense of confidence there is transparency and information coming from the police," Hammerman said.

"I do hope that the department reconsiders and develops a process by which the police are able to release and share information."

Schiff could not be reached for comment. The NYPD did not respond to calls and emails.

But a day after DNAinfo.com New York revealed Schiff's Twitter feed — attracting national media attention and threats of a lawsuit against the NYPD — Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the department is still figuring out its social-media protocol.

"We want to examine the whole issue. Obviously, social media, we want to use it productively. We want to use it legally. A lot of this is just new ground. It needs to be examined, and that's what we're going to do," Kelly said at a press conference Dec. 21.

"We need, probably, a comprehensive approach to it, rather than a command-by-command, unit-by-unit, approach."

Schiff previously defended his decision to post the Twitter updates, saying they were a necessary protection for the community.

"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," Schiff said in a December interview with DNAinfo.com, adding that each of the men he named had been arrested at least 30, 40 or 50 times.

"It's all public information."

But law enforcement experts and legal groups have been critical of Schiff's alerts, saying they raised privacy concerns for people who have served their debts to society.

"I've seen other police departments and precincts using things like Twitter and Facebook to post people that they're looking for," said Rachel Barkow, a professor who teaches criminal law at New York University’s School of Law. "I haven't heard of anyone doing it for this. It sort of undercuts the idea of someone reentering society."

Erin Murphy, who also teaches criminal law at NYU, voiced similar concerns.

"It's a commendable thing — police precincts trying to figure out how best to serve their communities," she said. "We need more communication with our police."

Still, she added, "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.”

A spokeswoman for Legal Aid, which represented at least one of the defendants later named on Twitter, said the group was considering suing the NYPD, but declined to elaborate or return follow-up calls and emails.

Legal 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.

Hammerman agreed. "I think that it's a challenge with anyone with a record to achieve [reintegration],” he said. “I don't think by sharing public information we're making it any more or less difficult for them to do that."

Schiff’s account, launched in August, appeared to have been the first to be personally updated by an NYPD precinct commander. Others are maintained by precincts' community affairs officers or their civilian community councils, whose posts range from updates on Hurricane Sandy relief to ongoing manhunts, upcoming council meetings and recent arrests.

Hammerman, the Community Board 6 district manager, said CB6 once posted information about sex offenders on its website. He added that he may consider returning to and expanding that practice to fill the gap left by Schiff’s suspended Twitter feed.

"If we have the time to do it, we will. I just don't feel it's our highest priority as of right now,” he said. Sharing public information, he continued “is our job” and, through Twitter, “people who want the information can get it. People who don't want it don't need to view it.”

— With reporting by Ben Fractenberg.