Police in Birmingham, Alabama, used Facebook and Twitter to track the lives of African-American residents and families in their communities, according to an investigation by the Associated Press and BuzzFeed News.
The police department, which is white, has faced criticism from local activists and civil rights groups over the use of the social media platforms.
The AP found that the department tracked more than 400 residents and family members from 2014 through 2016, including a young woman and her two children who were killed in a shooting in 2015.
The Facebook page of the Birmingham Police Department also tracked residents and relatives in the years following the 2014 shooting and the murder of 18-year-old Freddie Gray.
The page was removed within 24 hours of being launched, according the AP, but it was restored within two days.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Birmingham Police spokesperson said that the Facebook page was “part of a larger effort” to help communities deal with the trauma of losing loved ones.
“We use social media to connect with individuals in our community, to share with those who are in our midst and to gather information that can help us make decisions and protect our community,” the statement read.
“The department is aware that this was not an effective and efficient way to do this work.”
The page also tracked individuals in the past that were involved in the 2014 Baltimore riots and the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
In its statement to the AP and BuzzFeed, the department said it has implemented policies to stop the use and tracking of social media and that it is working to address the issues raised.
“Our goal is to make the use, collection and retention of social data as minimal as possible,” the department stated.
“As we work to build a better relationship with our communities, we must be clear that the use or collection of social information will not be allowed.”
Police officers in Birmingham also tracked the addresses of individuals in their department’s database and used social media apps to monitor them.
Police officers also used the Facebook Live chat app to monitor a Black Lives Matter protester and recorded conversations with him, according a report by the Washington Post.
Police also used Snapchat to record the movements of protesters and residents during the protests.
BuzzFeed News reached out to the department for comment, but did not receive a response as of publication.
A spokesperson for the department told BuzzFeed News that the social-media monitoring was “necessary” to track protesters who were trying to disrupt the events in downtown Birmingham.
“It is necessary for us to know where protesters are, where the crowd is, and where the police are,” the spokesperson said.
“These are the only times that we can monitor this information and keep us in the loop.
It is necessary.”
Police used social-network data in conjunction with the database The Alabama state agency that oversees police in Alabama, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, said it “does not track individual individuals,” but that the agency does “track the social, geographical and demographic characteristics of a community to ensure that there is sufficient information to respond appropriately to the needs of that community.”
The Alabama Law Enforcers Agency, which handles policing for Alabama, said in a statement that the data the agency collects is “based on the location of a location, location data collected on the social network, and data gathered on the individuals using social media.”
“This data is used to track criminal activity, such as the use by suspects of firearms, the use at a protest or other similar event,” the agency said.
BuzzFeed reported that the police department was also able to use data from the social networks to track individual residents and “to monitor the movements and activities of protesters at public events.”
Police also tracked people by the type of clothing they wore, their height and weight, their race, and the number of times they were photographed.
The information collected by the police agency and the agency’s social-networking team also included information about how often residents were arrested and the locations where people were arrested.
“Police officers in our area do not record information about individual citizens in their databases,” the police spokesperson said in an email.
“But we do collect and share information from individuals who use the social networking platforms.”
BuzzFeed News requested additional information about what data was collected and how it was used.
The Alabama State Agency for Law Enforcement Assistance in Public Information said that officers use data to “identify and track individuals in a community” and that officers also have “an obligation to protect public safety.”
The agency added that the officers’ information was collected “for their own safety and the safety of law enforcement officers.”