Facebook cop and the future of civic engagement

The recent decision by Facebook to donate money to pay for a Menlo Park police officer, as reported in the San Jose Mercury News, should be applauded for what it is — a targeted effort by a tech firm to use its wealth to help alleviate issues in the local community.

But it also raises questions about the line between the public and private spheres.

In what is being billed as a national first, Facebook is donating $600,000 over three years to pay for a police officer who would work on issues in the surrounding neighborhood, such as truancy. The money would cover her salary and other law enforcement needs.

Facebook’s move is part of a trend in tech to turn around its negative image as being callously indifferent to the social needs of those nearby. Recently, Google offered nearly $7 million to pay for a program in San Francisco that gives poor youth bus passes, we wrote. On Friday, Marc Benioff, co-founder and chief executive of Salesforce.com, launched a campaign to raise millions among tech companies to help fund programs for the poor in the Bay Area, reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

Perhaps local municipalities sense an opportunity. Mountain View this week passed new rules that would allow private companies to pay for city programs and put their names on them, the Mercury News reported.

On the Facebook cop, Terry Francke, general counsel of California Aware, told NBC Bay Area he didn’t see anything ethically wrong in the deal but added:

I don’t think it’s good government. The notion is that government services are paid for by everyone. This comes awfully close to naming rights. So, what will things be called now, ‘Google City Hall?’

In a post, Andrew Leonard of Salon called the Facebook Menlo Park cop a “terrible idea” and another sign that our system of government is broken.

It may look churlish to quibble with what is a win-win for the neighborhood near Facebook and the wider Menlo Park community. I’m suggesting we pause and ask: Do we want companies to pay for specific public safety and other programs that are funded by taxpayers? If there is not a real conflict of interest (Menlo Park police say it will retain control of the officer), then could there be an appearance of conflict?

It’s fine if stadiums take on corporate names, but we have typically drawn the line before companies promoted programs in city hall, public safety, libraries, public schools, parks. Why? Because money is power and it often gets its way. Ideally the public and the trusted elected officials should be calling the shots. I would wonder if the Facebook-sponsored cop was on the top of the list of Menlo Park’s needs.

Still, rather than wait for the broken government and tax system to be fixed, Facebook and other tech firms are helping out, and local governments would be fools not to jump at the opportunities to get cracking on some of the items on their wish lists.

Above: The Facebook logo is pictured at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park on Jan. 29, 2013. (REUTERS/Robert Galbraith).


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