An estimated 127 people have been arrested since protesters took to the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, on Wednesday after a grand jury chose not to charge three officers for Breonna Taylor’s death. With hundreds more expected to be detained in the coming weeks, the Information Systems Team at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections has made the unusual decision to disable its inmate lookup services — an highly controversial resource that also serves as a way for family members to find out if their loved ones are in police custody.
Mayor Greg Fischer imposed a 72-hour county-wide curfew beginning Wednesday night to “ensure a peaceful protest,” the Courier Journal reported; local police, “multiple law enforcement partners,” and the National Guard were called in to enforce the curfew. As has been the case in many other cities that attempted to impose similar ordinances, protesters defied the 9pm curfew, and police responded by firing projectiles and chemical agents and, of course, conducting arrests. Two officers were also shot Wednesday night, and a 26-year-old suspect has been charged with two counts of assault on a police officer and 14 counts of wanton endangerment.
At a time when police nationwide have been violently responding to civil unrest, the decision to take down inmate lookup services is a remarkable, but perhaps unsurprising, move.
In July, protesters in Louisville claimed that they were held in jail for more than 15 hours before being charged. “We were searched, we had to give up our belongings, we were X-rayed, we were fingerprinted — palms, fingers, everything,” Linda Sarsour, the founder of Until Freedom, told the New York Times.
Maurice Stepteau, an Information Systems Manager at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections, said in an email that the inmate lookup services site is currently down due to “cyber-security concerns.” He added that while there was no specific security incident, “a few vulnerabilities were detected and with an eye toward the current environment the decision was made to temporarily take the site down and address those specific issues.”
While it’s unclear exactly how long the site has been down. Google cached a working version of the site yesterday morning. However, for at least 18 hours, Gizmodo has been unable to access the service. In an email, the Louisville Metro DoC stated that the service could be “back up and functional relatively soon.” However as of 5 pm ET today, the site remains unresponsive.
Critics of inmate lookup sites, which often include mugshots of people who have not been convicted of any crime, are highly problematic, as they create the impression of guilt and can taint a person’s reputation for life. Several news outlets agreed earlier this year to stop using mugshots in their news coverage because of their negative impact on the people included in these sites.
However, in the case of mass arrests of protesters, the sites can also serve as the lone source of information for family and friends worried about their loved ones, giving value to an otherwise problematic practice.
The tactic of shielding even basic arrest data from scrutiny appears to be in use by police departments outside of Kentucky. In June, the Chicago Police Department removed access to its public arrest data, after the Chicago Reporter used it to analyse police tactics during protests. At the time, Justin Feldman, a research fellow at Harvard FXB Centre for Health and Human Rights, told the Chicago Reporter that “limiting our access to arrest data means researchers cannot answer crucial questions that could inform criminal justice policy throughout the United States.”