Transit agency head defends cell service shutoff

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The head of the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency is defending the system’s move to cut wireless service to thwart a planned protest last week. But he says the tactic likely won’t be used again.

BART board president Bob Franklin says cell phone service was left on during a second demonstration Monday night because the tactic was unlikely to prevent protesters from gathering at San Francisco’s Civic Center station.

Four days earlier, the agency turned off the service in its stations after protest organizers said they would issue last-minute instructions through social media and text messages. The demonstration had been planned in response to a fatal BART police shooting.

Franklin says BART lawyers had signed off on the plan, but says he expects the agency will be sued.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

As protesters massed on the Civic Center subway platform as Monday rush hour commenced, transit police had already decided to keep the system’s wireless network operating.

That was a marked departure from Thursday, when Bay Area Rapid Transit officials cut power to the subterranean wireless network and successfully quelled a brewing protest that relied on text messaging and social networks for organizing.

The move Thursday put the San Francisco Bay Area transit agency in the middle of a raging political debate between free speech and safety. But that’s not why police decided to leave on the wireless network.

Instead, BART board president Bob Franklin said the tactic was viewed as valueless for a demonstration that simply called for protesters to mass at 5 p.m. and didn’t rely on on-the-ground instructions electronically communicated by organizers.

“There wasn’t a need to turn off the cell phone coverage,” Franklin said/

Franklin said he supported the action Thursday, but doesn’t see BART ever again shutting the wireless network to quell a brewing protest. That’s because he believes future protesters won’t rely on their cell phones to organize knowing BART has the capability to cut communications in its station.

“I don’t see a need to do it again,” Franklin said.

In an interview Tuesday, Franklin defended the agency’s actions to cut communications as legal and appropriate to ensure commuter safety.

Franklin said the idea originated with BART’s chief spokesman Linton Johnson last week as the transit agency developed its response to the planned demonstration, called to protest the July 3 shooting death by BART police of a 45-year-old transient they alleged lunged at officers with a knife.

Organizers posted instructions for the demonstration on Web sites and on Twitter, indicating more instructions would be issued electronically right before the demonstration was to start. So Johnson proposed police cut wireless power in BART’s San Francisco stations. Neither Johnson or BART Police Chief Kenton Riley responded to several requests for comment.

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