Police Chief Who Helped Create ‘Facebook Unit’ Steps Down
‘It’s obvious to me that I’ve lost the trust of the city council,’ police Chief Dave Bertini said during a virtual town hall
One of the key architects of the “Facebook Unit,” a controversial team within the Menlo Park Police Department in California, abruptly stepped down on Friday, citing a loss of community trust. Menlo Park police Chief Dave Bertini announced his sudden, early retirement during a town hall forum about issues with local law enforcement.
Earlier this month, local residents protested the police unit, which is financially supported by millions of dollars from Facebook, the city’s largest employer. They demanded Facebook cease funding the Menlo Park Police Department.
Around 2016, Facebook approached the Menlo Park Police Department about creating a police force to patrol the area surrounding its campuses. Facebook offered to fund the department in exchange for “assigning a specific team of police officers to the Facebook campus,” Bertini wrote colleagues in an internal email published by Motherboard last year. (At the time, Bertini served as commander.) In 2017, Facebook agreed to donate $11.2 million to the city’s general fund over five years so the money could be allocated to policing needs. While the city may use these funds however they see fit, draft agreements and emails between Facebook and Menlo Park officials show that Facebook’s donation would ultimately support the new police unit. Nothing suggests the funds have been used for alternate purposes. The unit became fully staffed last year with six officers and one sergeant.
Today, it is one of the nation’s only privately funded police forces, and it underscores the immense influence Facebook wields over the small city, which is home to about 32,000 people as of the last census. There have been several protests outside of Mark Zuckerberg’s Palo Alto mansion this month over Facebook’s involvement with local law enforcement.
Friday’s town hall was meant to address policing issues within the Menlo Park community. Several residents on the video conference accused the police department of racism, a lack of overall transparency, and crossing an ethical line when it came to the Facebook Unit.
None of the council members criticized Bertini directly. Mueller said, “I think we should review our use of force in Menlo Park.”
Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor said there is “structural racism in our policies,” and that reforms are needed to address over-policing, racial profiling, and operational transparency.
Toward the end of the meeting, council member Ray Mueller opened the floor to Bertini, who promptly resigned, saying, “It’s obvious to me that I’ve lost the trust of the city council.”
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Bertini was appointed chief in 2018 and has touted the department’s community policing policy, which encourages officers to build ties with residents through outreach. However, Black residents in Menlo Park and neighboring East Palo Alto say the department has long terrorized communities of color, profiling people and unlawfully searching them at traffic stops. Bertini himself was accused of using a racial slur during an ethics training session last fall, according to the Almanac.
Complaints about Menlo Park law enforcement caused many residents to question Facebook’s motives for expanding police presence. In 2017, a group of Menlo Park and East Palo Alto citizens met with the company to express their trepidation about the Facebook Unit.
These concerns were mirrored at Friday’s town hall. One resident demanded the dissolution of the police force “that is funded by, and therefore accountable to, Facebook.”
“There have been protests in this community about where the funds come from, and there is a concern.”
A second resident blamed Facebook for the number of police on Menlo Park’s streets. The Menlo Park Police Department enforces a certain ratio between officers and daytime occupants — a ratio that significantly changes once Facebook’s 15,000 employees and countless contractors leave for the day.
The daily influx of Facebook workers was the basis of Facebook’s push for additional law enforcement. “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 2017 in an email to then-police Chief Robert Jonsen.
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Menlo Park Vice Mayor Drew Combs, a Facebook employee and former city planning commissioner, was also present at the town hall. Combs was elected as vice mayor last year and concurrently works as a privacy program manager at Facebook.
“I too am afraid of the police,” said Combs, who is Black. He recommended the city look into issues such as “police funding — both the level of funding and the sources of which those funds come from… There have been protests in this community about where the funds come from, and there is a concern,” he said.
“As a condition of our development agreement — where we also made commitments to housing, traffic mitigation, and education — we are legally required to continue contributing to the city’s general fund as we have for several years,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to OneZero. “Our contribution to the general fund was expected to help ensure emergency service costs resulting from serious on-campus threats are covered by us and not local taxpayers. However, discretion over how this general fund contribution is spent rests with the city council.”
Menlo Park’s police budget has increased by roughly $1 million per year for the last three years. According to a budget report prepared by the city, the department’s expenditures rose from nearly $17 million in 2016 to more than $19 million in 2019, and the majority of these costs are met by Menlo Park’s general fund.
By design, Facebook’s funding of police is funneled through the city’s general fund — a buffer between Facebook Unit staff and the technology company. The city does not earmark these funds, so as to prevent officers from believing their salaries are paid for by Facebook. Funneling Facebook’s money through the general fund also allows the city to say these funds are discretionary, even though Facebook explicitly donated the money for the purpose of a new police unit. The donation is technically an in lieu sales tax agreement, as Facebook does not generate sales tax revenue that typically funds public services like police.
Facebook says its support for Menlo Park police is out of the interest of community safety. However, Bertini previously expressed concern over threats to the Facebook campus and was at one point considering specialized training for Facebook Unit staff, including SWAT and active shooter courses.
On Friday, Bertini said he would remain through July to assist in the search for an interim police chief. The Menlo Park Police Department directed OneZero’s request for comment to the city manager’s office, which did not immediately respond.
Update: This story has been edited to include a statement from Facebook.