Local law enforcement officials have been stopping people riding Facebook bikes, questioning them, and in some instances, arresting them and confiscating the bikes if they find that the cyclists stopped don't work for the giant social media company.
A group of about 50 people gathered at East Palo Alto's City Hall on Feb. 7 to discuss the implications of this practice. The meeting's organizers, who are mainly longtime East Palo Alto residents, said one of their biggest concerns is that young people of color seen riding Facebook bikes are being targeted by local law enforcement agencies, specifically the Menlo Park Police Department and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.
In introductory remarks presented before a community discussion at the gathering, the organizers summarized some of the perspectives on the matter that they've heard. On one hand, they said, people shouldn't be taking bikes that don't belong to them. That's stealing.
On the other, they asserted, there hasn't been clear outreach about the company's expectations for the bikes, and whether it is permissible for non-Facebook community members to use them. And given the ubiquity of the bikes around town, that it is generally a low-income area, that local teens need to travel to other towns to attend school, and that there is a strong precedent of adults in the community also using the bikes, some people argue that these are complicating factors that should be taken into account by law enforcement agencies as they address bike thefts from corporations.
The Menlo Park Police Department has an entire police unit funded by Facebook as the result of a development agreement approved in October 2017. When asked whether the source of the department's funding affects how the department sets priorities, Police Chief Dave Bertini said, "Facebook is not getting any special treatment."
As evidence, he said, Menlo Park police treat people found riding Google bikes the same way they have approached people on Facebook bikes: They ask riders if they are employees, and if they are not, detain them and confiscate the bikes. Both companies' bikes, he explained, are "extremely easy to recognize." Police do not need "probable cause" of illegal activity to stop someone and ask whether he or she works for the company the bike belongs to, he noted, and it can be obvious if an underage person is seen in the community riding a Facebook or Google bike that the rider is not employed at one of those companies.
Facebook told The Almanac that it loses an average of 60 bikes per month, noting that many are eventually recovered.
At the meeting, East Palo Alto Planning Commissioner Kyra Brown described a Dec. 10 incident in which she drove past a cluster of police and emergency response vehicles at the edge of Menlo Park near the Stanford Shopping Center. Curious, she turned around and approached the scene.
She said she saw that a young African-American man was handcuffed, questioned and asked for identification. The man told her he had been arrested for riding a Facebook bike. "It's very hard to 'verify' who on a Facebook bike is actually a Facebook employee without resorting to racial profiling," Brown said in an email.
"These arrests are happening," she told the group. "Young people are the ones being arrested."
Police Chief Bertini, who did not attend the public meeting, said he was aware of that incident, but described it differently. He reported that Menlo Park police stopped a man riding a Facebook bike in downtown Menlo Park on El Camino Real. When asked if he worked for Facebook, he said no, and police detained him. He became uncooperative and was temporarily put in handcuffs. He was later cleared, then released, and the bicycle was taken and returned to Facebook, he explained.
"Technically, if you're riding a bike that's not yours, it's theft, or the misappropriation of a lost object," he said.
In another incident, which the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office on Jan. 29 publicized on Facebook under the headline, "Facebook bike leads to drug arrest," a deputy was reported to have been patrolling an unincorporated county area and stopped to talk to a man riding a Facebook bike.
"Turns out the man was not a Facebook employee and he also had needles that were loaded with (heroin) in his pockets," the Facebook post stated. The man was then given a citation and told about resources to help with drug addiction, the Sheriff's Office stated.
The Sheriff's Office did not respond to requests for comment about this incident or its bike policing practices by The Almanac's press deadline.
Several Facebook employees attended the public meeting, and Ashley Quintana, a member of the community engagement team, told attendees that Facebook has "at no point" requested that law enforcement officials in Menlo Park or East Palo Alto stop, detain or arrest people or confiscate bikes from people riding the company's bikes. Facebook has not requested charges filed against people for stolen bikes.
"Our only goal for bike recovery is to ensure that our employees are not abandoning our bikes on sidewalks, or in public places outside of campus, creating a public nuisance," she wrote in a public Facebook post.
Facebook has set up an email account and hotline where people can report misplaced company bikes, she added. It also has a dedicated staff to pick up bikes in the community. In addition, Facebook hosts bike workshops, has donated bikes to local nonprofits, and is working to provide local youth with bike access.
After Quintana's announcement, Bertini told The Almanac that the police department no longer plans to arrest people caught riding the bikes unlawfully.
"It's been an evolving issue," he said. "We have finally been given a pretty clear opinion by Facebook, which is that they do not want to prosecute anybody who illegally has (their) bikes."
"We will be operating under the premise we are not stopping anybody riding a Facebook bike 'just because,'" he said.
One caveat, he added, is that the police department may still stop people caught violating traffic rules while on Facebook bikes, whether that means riding at night without a headlight, going through a stoplight without stopping, riding the wrong way down the street, or, as a juvenile, riding without a helmet. In those situations, traffic law violators will still be warned or cited.
Moving forward, he said, he doesn't plan to use police resources to deal with who should or should not have Facebook bikes. For a police officer to have "probable cause" to make an arrest, there has to be a victim, he said. "If Facebook is not willing to be a victim, (we're) no longer able to do that."
But the bikes, he added, wind up all over the place, and in East Palo Alto, he said he understands that the biggest complaint is that bikes are being dumped on people's property.
"That's not very good stewardship," he said. The East Palo Alto Police Department doesn't have the resources to send people out to pick up abandoned company bikes, he said, adding that Facebook should take more responsibility to make sure employees don't leave the bikes in adjacent neighborhoods.
Mountain View and Google bikes
In nearby Mountain View, the problem of Google bikes in the community has strong parallels, but the city has adapted to the bikes' presence over time, explained Nate Baird, the city's in-house bike transportation guru. He said that Mountain View has developed procedures for dealing with Google bikes in the community.
"I'm pretty sure Google bikes are used by non-Google employees," he said, adding, "We're kind of hands-off with it."
When bikes are found in bad locations such as in positions blocking sidewalks or abandoned in Stevens Creek either Google or the city's municipal operations center goes out and collects them. They then let Google know and company representatives pick them up.
Both the city's bike share program and Google have created hotlines where people can report problems, or they can contact the city, he said.
Bertini said that the Mountain View Police Department continues to detain people for illegally riding on misappropriated Google bikes, and his officers will continue to do the same when they come across people riding Google bikes unless the company comes forward with a policy statement indicating it doesn't want police to do so.
East Palo Alto residents planned to bring the matter before their City Council for discussion at a meeting set for Feb. 19.
East Palo Alto Mayor Lisa Gauthier, who attended the public meeting, acknowledged the complexity of the problem. On one hand, she said, "We can't condone young people taking bikes. We don't want them to think it's OK."
Yet, she added, there hasn't always been clear instruction from Facebook about what to do when people find company bikes in the community. Also, she's heard anecdotally that Facebook bikes have been found parked at Menlo-Atherton High School, and doesn't want teens overly penalized for using the bikes to get to school. She said she is hoping to get more data and information.
The meeting was also attended by Menlo Park City Council members Cecilia Taylor and Betsy Nash. Nash told The Almanac she planned to ask the Menlo Park Police Department for data about police stops of people riding Facebook bikes.
When The Almanac requested this information, Bertini said there is no way to parse out which police interactions have been triggered by Facebook bikes. Short of doing an incident-by-incident search of police records, he said, "we have no way to do that."
He added that people are invited to discuss that and other matters at a "Meet the Chief" event scheduled from 6 to 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 25, at the Belle Haven Neighborhood Service Center at 871 Hamilton Ave.
People who find abandoned Facebook bikes are encouraged to email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (650) 542-0167. For abandoned Google bikes, email email@example.com or call (650) 214-9003.