This article originally appeared on VICE US.
One evening in June 2015, a man left Facebook’s sprawling technology campus in Menlo Park, California with two baby-blue bicycles. They were part of a shared fleet offered as a corporate perk; employees aren’t supposed to ride them off the property, but many ignore this rule, abandoning them around town to the ire of Facebook’s neighbors.
That night, Facebook’s security guards reported the bicycles as stolen. And after pinging their coordinates on GPS trackers, they alerted the Menlo Park Police Department, saying the company intended to prosecute. A police officer quickly found a Hispanic man and arrested him for larceny.
It’s common for residents to opportunistically use Facebook’s discarded bicycles, and for years police routinely stopped people—notably young people of color, according to some community accounts—for riding them, fomenting fears about racial profiling. The bicycles became an unexpected symbol of police tension in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, where people of color feel criminalized under the shadow of immense technology wealth.
The 2005 incident, which Facebook denies any knowledge of, is notable because of what happened after the arrest: Nothing. The man, it turned out, was a Facebook contract worker. According to Menlo Park police documents that Motherboard obtained through a public records request, “when representatives from Facebook learned that [the man] was a Facebook employee they requested that no criminal charges be brought against him,” and he was released. The dutiful compliance of the police—first chasing after Facebook property that Facebook employees left around the community as litter, then standing down when told by Facebook that the culprit was part of a special, protected class—is a minor instantiation of a broader issue: Just how intertwined Facebook and local police have become.
The Bay Area has long been a sandbox for technology giants who are no longer merely occupying communities, but building and reshaping them. In Menlo Park, an affluent, mostly white city of 35,000, Facebook at one point paid workers not to live in lower-income neighborhoods near the company’s headquarters. And now, there's a police unit that is funded by Facebook to patrol the area surrounding its campus. The bill comes in at over $2 million annually—big money in a small city.
This deeply unusual relationship has highlighted issues of policing ethics and thrown disparities between Menlo Park and neighboring East Palo Alto into stark relief. When Menlo Park police began confronting people for riding Facebook bicycles off-campus, for instance, residents of East Palo Alto, a primarily Black and Latinx community, worried that law enforcement was racially profiling people who did not appear to them as Facebook employees.
“You create a danger when you have public servants being privately funded,” J.T. Faraji, an East Palo Alto resident and founder of the activist group Real Community Coalition, told Motherboard. “It becomes the privatization of the law, and the law is supposed to work for everyone. To me, that’s a major breakdown in the system. It should be illegal for private corporations to have their own police force.”
(“Our funding is not a privatization of the law,” Facebook spokesperson Anthony Harrison told Motherboard. “We have a long-term commitment to Menlo Park, and we want it to remain a safe and inclusive environment for everyone who calls it home.”)
The “Facebook Unit,” as it was nicknamed by Menlo Park police, has not gotten much attention outside of these communities, despite being one of the nation’s only privately-funded public police forces.
Public records obtained by Motherboard—hundreds of pages of notes, proposals in draft and final form, presentations, and emails between Facebook and the Menlo Park Police Department over several years—provide an unprecedented look at how the partnership was forged and how it operates, as well as at public concerns about law enforcement’s intimate ties to one of the most powerful technology companies in the world.
“This would be concerning to me as a community member,” said Chris Burbank of the Center for Policing Equity, a research consortium founded at the University of California-Los Angeles that focuses on transparency in law enforcement. “I don’t care who it is. You don’t get to buy a police department.”
Facebook in Menlo Park
Eight years ago, Facebook outgrew its Palo Alto headquarters and moved to 1 Hacker Way, an eastern sliver of Menlo Park that formerly housed the dot-com darling Sun Microsystems. There was open speculation at the time about “whether Facebook's relatively young workforce will embrace a fairly isolated campus surrounded by one of Menlo Park's more troubled neighborhoods.” But in true imperial fashion Facebook then sprawled west, spending more than $1 billion on a Frank Gehry-designed campus bursting with amenities such as pop-up shops, bike paths, redwood groves, and “green-scapes.”
Its latest conquest is a corporate complex called Willow Village just south of 1 Hacker Way. Once complete, it will become the largest development in Menlo Park’s history, with 1.75 million square feet of offices, up to 200,000 square feet of retail, 1,500 housing units, parks, a hotel, restaurants, and possibly even a town square.
As Facebook snatched up real estate, it promised a suite of public paybacks in development agreements struck with the city. The company declared in characteristically grandiose terms that its vision for Menlo Park would be one “that promotes connection and community.” (Critics likened the area to a “company town.”)
And in 2013, Facebook paid to offset a police substation in Menlo Park’s poorest neighborhood, Belle Haven, which is adjacent to Facebook’s campus and home to many of the city’s Latinx residents. One year later, the company gave Menlo Park a $600,000 grant to hire a community safety officer for the substation for up to five years. This was then believed to be the nation’s only privately funded full-time policing job.
The nontraditional union of public and private interests was covered by outlets such as the New York Times, which wrote that the plan “evoked some disquiet.” But little rationale has been given for why Facebook is authorized to do this, and what its motivations are.
Together, Facebook and Menlo Park’s government swatted down complaints from citizens, reporters, and watchdog groups that the partnership is alarming, even sinister. They preferred to present the arrangement as a “public benefit,” and the best, most logical conclusion to a corporate behemoth transforming an urban landscape. In response to concerns about preferential treatment, the Menlo Park Police Department told NBC Bay Area in 2015 that just .02 percent of service calls that year were to Facebook headquarters.
Yet interviews and documents obtained by Motherboard inform a different truth. More than just being neighborly, Facebook is designing and building an ecosystem in its own image.
The genesis of the “Facebook Unit”
Around 2016, Facebook approached the Menlo Park Police Department about funding a new unit—comprised of five officers and one sergeant—to cover the area encompassing its current and future campuses. The zone was given the moniker “M-2” and sits kitty-corner to East Palo Alto, and would eventually become a fourth police patrol called “Beat 4.”
On February 4, 2016, Dave Bertini, who is now Menlo Park’s police chief but served as commander at the time, emailed then-police chief Robert Jonsen with a proposal for the Facebook Unit.
“Facebook Inc. has approached the Police Department regarding assigning a specific team of police officers to the Facebook campus,” it said, referring to in-person discussions between Facebook and police.
Approximately 14,674 of Facebook’s employees work in Menlo Park, and Willow Village would increase that capacity to 35,000. This presented a logistical concern for the Menlo Park Police Department, which maintains a ratio of 1 officer to 1,000 people in the city during the daytime. At one point, Facebook “proposed hiring off-duty officers from other communities” to address this issue, according to police records.
By city estimates, the department would need another 17 sworn officers by 2040 to maintain the status quo. “Facebook said, ‘Let’s give you a jumpstart,’” Bertini told Motherboard. “It was their way of saying, 'Let us help you mitigate the impact of us being here.'”
“We need to show how the 1 officer to 1000 serviced population will be stretched without our initial support,” Facebook’s director of global security services, Marjorie Jackson, wrote in a strategizing email to Jonsen on March 1, 2017.
But records show that policing ratios were only part of the push to create the new unit.
“In the wake of recent high profile terrorist or terrorist inspired attacks [...] Facebook and the police department are aware of the heightened need for security for the Facebook campus and its employees and visitors,” the police proposal stated. “At issue is the police personnel necessary to respond to such incidents along with a current lack of any deterrence...at the Facebook campuses.”
(A later version of this proposal swapped “terrorist or terrorist inspired attacks” for “threats against interests in this country.”)
Bertini told Motherboard he has “no doubt” that Facebook is a target. “It’s not a matter of if we’re going to have an armed intruder, it’s just a matter of when,” he said.
Bertini was among those who responded to the 2018 shooting at YouTube’s San Bruno campus where a woman injured three people before dying by suicide. Following the incident, he told the San Mateo Daily Journal that he increased foot patrols at Facebook and hoped to “normalize the officers being there.” Last year, Facebook’s headquarters were evacuated due to a bomb threat and it experienced a sarin threat this July. Officers throughout Menlo Park responded to both incidents.
Menlo Park Police Department records show that on multiple occasions it considered “specialized training” for Facebook Unit officers, including active shooter response training and “SWAT and sniper training.” Facebook has also contracted Menlo Park police time ahead of VIP events on its campus.
“I don’t want to focus on terrorism,” Bertini said. “We’re also worried about domestic terrorism or someone with a mental illness who shows up at the Facebook campus saying they have a meeting with Zuckerberg.”
How Facebook and Menlo Park negotiated a deal
Police meeting notes from September 6, 2016 mention that “Facebook has been very persistent about getting the program established,” and emails show that Facebook representatives periodically checked in about the hiring status of these officers.
On April 28, 2016, Facebook’s head of global facilities, John Tenanes, emailed the police department “requesting information regarding availability” and expressed that Facebook wanted the unit to be active as soon as July 2016.
But the Menlo Park City Council did not hold a study session about the unit until February 28, 2017. And Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller, who served as councilman at the time, was opposed to the idea of Facebook contributing a monetary gift, saying it was “bad public policy” to accept favors from companies in exchange for city services, reported the Almanac.
The optics of such an arrangement were not lost on the police department, which acknowledged that “to have a company fund a public entity, specifically law enforcement, can draw skepticism with concerns of preferential treatment.” This would perhaps be true given what negotiations had initially entailed: A draft agreement from 2016 between the city and Facebook “regarding donations to fund a community police officer positions,” for instance, states that “Facebook will make an annual donation to the City for the express purposes of funding the Position(s).”
To mitigate a “pay for play” situation, the Menlo Park City Council asked if it could “negotiate [a] general in-lieu sales tax agreement” with Facebook, according to meeting notes from April 24, 2017. Bertini said the city eventually landed on the $11.2 million figure to represent the unit’s cost over five years, with the potential for a two-year extension.
On September 26, 2017, the council agreed that Facebook would deposit the money into the city’s unrestricted general fund, reported the Almanac. This represents a bet that property tax revenue generated by Facebook’s new development will cover policing costs when the five years are up—and a way to semi-plausibly argue that the police Facebook is paying for are not in fact being paid for by Facebook.
“There was no obligation to use the in-lieu money to pay for the police force,” Mueller told Motherboard. “We could disband that unit if we wanted to.”
“The city can use it in any way it deems necessary to benefit all the citizens of Menlo Park,” Harrison said.
“Why is Facebook using a police force that has a record of abusing Black and brown residents in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto?”
Mueller stressed that Facebook’s millions do not go toward the Facebook Unit, even though the patrol was borne out of its contribution. The agreement stipulates that the $11.2 million will be spent on services “that benefit the safety of local community,” but at the city’s discretion. There is currently no way to discern whether Facebook’s money directly supports Beat 4 activities, as it is not distinguished by the general fund.
When asked if this obfuscates police spending, Mueller said it would be inappropriate “if we actually kept track of Beat 4 money,” or if officers were to believe that Facebook was footing their salaries.
In any event, the Facebook Unit became fully staffed on August 1 of this year, more than three years after its inception.
Community concerns and a history of over-policing
Throughout the process, Facebook’s neighbors expressed serious reservations about the partnership and its implications. The psychological effects of Menlo Park’s heightened police presence have demoralized residents of color, who told the Almanac about instances of being profiled by officers or searched during traffic stops.
“Why is Facebook using a police force that has a record of abusing Black and brown residents in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto?” Faraji asked.
In 2017, Faraji was among a group of community organizers who met privately with Facebook to discuss the Menlo Park police unit and other issues stemming from its rapid growth, reported Palo Alto Online.
Local housing activists also say that Facebook has accelerated gentrification and is directly responsible for displacing families, reported the Guardian. Until 2018, Facebook employees were offered a “balanced work-life” bonus of $15,000 for moving within 10 miles of its campus. But the incentive excluded East Palo Alto and Menlo Park’s Belle Haven neighborhood, both communities of color that are less than several miles from Facebook’s campus.
During development talks with the city in 2016, “city officials and community leaders had the impression that this program was contributing to gentrification of those communities and asked Facebook to exclude them from the program,” a source close to the discussion told Motherboard. “Facebook data didn’t support this conclusion, but the company decided to agree to the city’s wishes.”
The aftermath, in which Facebook essentially paid employees to avoid certain communities, while necessitating more law enforcement in others, could certainly be critiqued as social engineering—not the online sort that it has been accused of enabling in the past, but a physical and environmental manipulation of human resources and migration.
“This little area has a long history of being excluded from the wealth of the surrounding area,” Mackenzie Rodriguez, who has lived in East Palo Alto for more than a decade, told Motherboard.
One of the most obvious manifestations of this has been Facebook’s bicycles.
“You have an extremely poor community that is being flooded with toys of wealth, and these things are going to happen,” Faraji said, noting that he does not condone stealing. “People who are going without are not going to understand why one person can use something for free and another person can’t.
On February 7, 2019, dozens of residents from East Palo Alto and Belle Haven met over growing concerns that police were targeting young people of color for riding Facebook’s bicycles. A blue and yellow flyer asked community members to discuss the “challenges that have risen from the presence of FB Bikes [and the] impact this has had on residents and our youth.”
Residents said that teens in low-income areas had been singled out by the Menlo Park Police Department and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, and should not be detained or ticketed for, say, using a Facebook bicycle to get to school, and that police responses should be less punitive.
“We can't condone young people taking bikes,” said East Palo Alto Mayor Lisa Gauthier at the time, according to a report from the Almanac. “We don't want them to think it's OK.” But Facebook, on the other hand, had not sufficiently engaged with the community on the issue, Gauthier added.
The Menlo Park Police Department did not attend the meeting, but several Facebook representatives did, claiming that the company had never asked officers to stop, detain, or arrest people for riding Facebook bicycles. Facebook clarified to Motherboard that it never asked police to confront people off-campus.
“I suggest we get together to share actions and communication,” Facebook’s global security services manager, John Day, wrote in an email to Menlo Park and East Palo Alto police the following day.
“FYI. This is the first time Facebook has given us an answer in writing,” Bertini wrote colleagues, referring to Facebook’s email.
Motherboard obtained an internal bulletin that Bertini issued on February 11, 2019. “Effective immediately, officers are not to stop or detain anyone on a Facebook bicycle for the sole reason that they are in possession of a Facebook bicycle,” it stated.
It is unclear how many teens or people of color have been stopped by Menlo Park officers for using Facebook’s bicycles. Emails show that East Palo Alto community organizers requested this data from the department on February 20, 2019.
In East Palo Alto, where many families struggle to afford housing as the average home price hits $1 million, “worrying about their kids having a bad interaction with the police over a stupid bike? Not a thing they should be worried about,” Rodriguez said.
Police logs obtained by Motherboard detail several occasions wherein Menlo Park officers responded to bicycle related complaints by Facebook.
On July 14, 2015, “Facebook security reported that subjects came onto the property, rode Facebook bicycles around and then stole bicycle helmets. [Reporting party] did not want a crime report taken but asked to have the incident documented.”
On July 10, 2019, “several juveniles observed stealing Facebook bicycles by Facebook security were asked to leave the campus. Instead of leaving, the juveniles became hostile towards security and one subject threatened to come back and shoot the employees. Investigation ongoing.”
Bertini denied all claims of racial profiling, saying the Menlo Park Police Department requires its officers to complete training that addresses implicit bias. When police encountered someone “who was obviously not a Facebook employee, like a 12-year-old,” that person would be stopped and the bicycle confiscated in most cases.
However, Facebook’s claim that it had never requested police officers to detain or arrest people for riding its bicycles, which it recently told residents at the meeting in East Palo Alto, is complicated.
“We've never asked Menlo Park police to stop individuals riding on bikes in the community,” Harrison said. “We've tried to limit thefts of bikes on our campus and while we initially explored prosecution of in progress bike thefts, we quickly reversed that decision in favor of exploring alternatives such a public awareness campaign and community partnerships to reduce bike removal from our campus.”
But on June 6, 2019, Patrol Sergeant Aaron Dixon, who is assigned to the Facebook Unit, emailed police management stating that “Facebook has been experiencing an increase in bicycle thefts. As a result, they have called dispatch stating they will prosecute during the in progress thefts.”
Bertini explained that Menlo Park police are currently in discussion with Facebook about this, but will not be amending their policies unless Facebook states otherwise.
“They believe there are large scale organized thefts of bikes,” Bertini said. “We will look at that differently than the one-offs that were talked about in training bulletin. If there is an organized conspiracy, we will investigate.”
Today the Facebook Unit is operating on all cylinders in the tiny technotopia that Facebook has constructed for itself in Menlo Park. The company hosts a farmer’s market, “Coffee & Chat,” and sponsors neighborhood happenings like a festival and August’s “National Night Out” celebration in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. It also holds an annual appreciation lunch for local law enforcement.
But “as much as Facebook says they want to have the community involved, the real community involved is the new one that they’re building,” Faraji said.
All documents that informed this reporting can be found here.