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Police Are Spending COVID-19 Relief Funds on New Technology

by Brooke Kaufman

According to VICE, the Biden administration has been encouraging local governments to use American Rescue Plan Act (“ARPA”) funds, a pandemic relief aid package, on policing.

“I want more cities and states to use some of the $350 billion we sent to them on the American Rescue Plan to fight crime, to keep our communities safe by hiring more police officers for community policing and paying police overtime,” President Biden said at a Gun Violence Prevention Task Force Meeting in February 2022, “and purchasing gun-fighting technologies, like technologies that hears, locates gunshots so there can be immediate response because you know exactly where it came from.”

Across the country, state and local officials have begun approving requests for police departments to use pandemic relief funds on drones and armored vehicles. Kingsport Police Department in Tennessee recently purchased “military-grade” drones, and Dixon County City Council in California is considering spending the funds on a police drone program, body-worn cameras, and a license plate reader program. In the Atlanta metro area, Dekalb County spent over half a million dollars in pandemic funds on aerial drones, Flock automated license plate readers, additional license plate readers, and a mobile precinct.

Activists like Jasmine (whose last name is being withheld because of retaliation concerns), the organizing director for Community Movement Builders, a grassroots Black liberation organization, have criticized the use of pandemic funding on police technology. Jasmine said police spending is “antagonistic to working class Americans” and a clear “response” to the working class movement against police expansion and in support of Black liberation.

“The government at this point is honestly preparing for war and retaliation against the working class. They treat us as if they’re an occupying force in our communities,” Jasmine said. “I think the technology that they’re funding speaks to that.…The state relies on the police to enforce capitalism, to protect property and to essentially ensure that people are funneled into exploitative labor practices.” 

Jasmine said Dekalb County’s use of ARPA funds brings to mind a previous effort on the part of local officials to build a $90 million police training facility known as “Copy City.” Ground breaking on the facility was moved forward in the wake of protests against police brutality following the murder of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta in 2020.

Local governments have pointed to increasing crime rates during the pandemic to justify the use of ARPA funds on police technology. Abolitionist scholars and activists, however, disagree that the funding is a “proactive” solution to violent crime. Instead, they argue police and prisons do little to increase public safety.

“There’s always this narrative, particularly in the pandemic, that crime is spiking, that folks are becoming more violent, when in reality, people are just becoming more and more desperate, because they’re working 40 hours a week, if not more, and are still unable to feed their families,” Jasmine said. “And so this narrative about crime is really just a justification for expanding the police state even further, such that when people push back, the state is ready to crush those movements.”

According to abolitionist-scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, state and local officials could direct the funds to “life-affirming institutions” like free food programs. Non-police interventions, like offering grants to low-income homeowners, are proven to lower crime rates. Jasmine said access to basic needs like housing, food, and water security will go a long way in keeping communities safe. She also emphasized the need for transformative and restorative justice over continued reliance on the carceral system.

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