Rex Schellenberg said he was appalled when he found out that a police officer had been sharing information about him and other homeless people on Facebook.
“Telling them who we were and what we were doing. Our personal problems,” said Schellenberg, 81, who has lived on the streets of the San Fernando Valley for years. “It’s like putting a target on our back.”
Now Schellenberg and his attorney Carol Sobel are taking the city to court over a phenomenon that has divided Angelenos: Facebook pages where Valley residents have complained about encampments and other issues and shared their concerns with police, sometimes including photos of people on the street.
In the lawsuit, they accuse the city of allowing a police officer to target and harass Schellenberg with the help of those Facebook groups, sharing sensitive and sometimes erroneous information about him and his physical and mental state. The lawsuit asserts that online posts led to Schellenberg being harassed by police and that his van was illegally towed.
City officials did not immediately respond to the allegations in the lawsuit. Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, on Monday said, “We will review the lawsuit and have no further comment at this time.”
The legal claims are tied to events that occurred before police were told to stop taking part in the online groups, said Sobel, a civil rights attorney who has repeatedly sued Los Angeles over the rights of homeless people.
Last year, LAPD officers were ordered to stop participating in Facebook pages such as “Crimebusters of West Hills and Woodland Hills” and “Homeless Transient Encampments of our West Valley,” amid complaints that comments there had promoted violence and harassment of people living on the streets.
An August post by a resident on one of the closed pages showed someone lying on a sidewalk, followed by comments such as, “Have you tried a spray bottle?” and “Cattle prods are affordable and effective too,” according to screenshots viewed by the Los Angeles Times. That post appeared to have later been deleted.
In another post a year earlier, a member urged residents concerned about people gathered in a park at night to “make them as uncomfortable as possible, hopefully that will make them go back to wherever they came from,” according to emails obtained through a records request by blogger Adrian Riskin.
At a community meeting in September, LAPD Deputy Chief Jorge Rodriguez said he had ordered officers to stop posting on the Facebook pages because the sites had included troubling comments about poisoning or shooting people. LAPD Chief Michel Moore said the reputation of his department was at stake.
It wasn’t the first time that such concerns had arisen: In 2018, homeless advocates lodged a complaint with the state attorney general, arguing that such Facebook pages spread private and potentially defamatory information about homeless individuals, making them more vulnerable to harassment. They named several LAPD officers active on the pages, including senior lead officer and recent Los Angeles City Council candidate Sean Dinse.
Many residents at the September meeting complained that the Facebook pages were being unfairly maligned and said police should remain involved, arguing that the pages helped them reach officers promptly about concerns. One resident said it helped protect the community when Dinse could tell people that someone could be violent and should not be approached.
Both groups have posted rules that “vigilante” comments are not allowed, but page administrator Fern White “cannot catch every inappropriate statement as soon as it is made,” her attorney Michael Saltz said in an email last year.
Saltz also provided screenshots of posts in which officers and residents had expressed sympathy or sought help for homeless people in the area. He said that, in general, when members of the groups shared photos of people on the street, “the purpose of such posts is to document certain activity to pass on for evaluation and proper action.”
Most group members “are mindful of maintaining certain privacy guidelines” when dealing with homeless people, but “there is no expectation of privacy by anyone who is in the process of committing a crime or violating the law,” Saltz said.
The new lawsuit names Dinse as a defendant, alleging that he posted information about where Schellenberg was staying so that residents would contact police, giving officers a “pretextual basis” to force him to move or seize his property.
Dinse also shared other information about the man: In a post from a few years ago included in the suit, Dinse stated that Schellenberg had been evicted from housing, probably due to “drug addiction/mental illness.” The lawsuit said Schellenberg was not a drug addict and did not suffer from mental illness, “other than the ordinary stress and trauma of living on the streets.”
Schellenberg also accuses the officer of repeatedly targeting his van for improper towing, including one instance that occurred weeks after someone posted an image of him on the Crimebusters page, according to the lawsuit.
Dinse declined to comment on the claims in the lawsuit, referring questions to the city attorney’s office. At the September meeting where community members sparred over the Facebook groups, the officer said he wanted to be on the pages to soak up information about what was happening on the streets and assist residents.
Saltz did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
This isn’t the only case that Schellenberg has filed against the city: He sued Los Angeles over a year ago, alleging that city employees had violated his rights by seizing and destroying his property, including a laptop, his bicycle and a housing voucher. The city denied his claims, saying it returned any property “not deemed a public health and safety hazard.”