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Police Foundations: The Impossible Task of Separating the World of Policing From the World of Corporate Money

by Casey J. Bastian

“Not a lot of people are aware of this public-private partnership where corporations and wealthy donors are able to siphon money into police forces with little to no oversight.” — Gin Armstrong, senior research analyst at LittleSis.

 

Police foundations are private organizations that engage in philanthropic endeavors intended to “provide equipment and technology that massively-funded police departments ‘can’t afford.’” Without government oversight, or any form of true accountability, these foundations funnel massive amounts of funding from dozens of the largest corporations into police coffers across America.

This money is used to purchase militarized weaponry and surveillance technology. This process also creates conflicts of interest as multiple foundations’ donors and board members frequently bid on police department contracts. Foundations also spread “copaganda” by driving publicity and ad messages that contribute to “misconceptions about crime and the normalization of constant surveillance and ever-growing policing.” Worst of all, this contributes to vulnerable communities and protestors of law enforcement abuses being terrorized by American law enforcement systems.

Critics and proponents of this system of covert funding have significantly divergent views about police foundations. One of the most critical and extensive examinations of police foundations was conducted by Color of Change and Public Accountability Initiative/LittleSis. The resulting report is titled Police Foundations: A Corporate-Sponsored Threat to Democracy and Black Lives (“Report”). The Report was published in 2021 on policefoundations.org. The 54-page Report provides an in-depth look at every aspect of police foundations: information about a system many Americans aren’t even aware exists. 

The idea to create police foundations originated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was another period of modern American history when there was social upheaval and mass protests, then centered around the Vietnam War. This turmoil led to an increase in brutal police actions and the implementation of broad surveillance systems used against recalcitrant citizens. An example of this at the federal level was the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, known as COINTELPRO, which was used to spy upon, disrupt, and set up activists and protestors during that time.

The first such foundation appears to have been the National Police Foundation (“NPF”), which was established on July 22, 1970. At its founding, the NPF was provided an endowment of $30 million from the Ford Foundation. This endowment funded the NPF for a five-year period, intending it to become “the largest private agency in the nation concerned exclusively with police work.” The NPF was also part of a partnership between the U.S. Department of Justice and the retail giant Target. Shortly thereafter, the Ford Foundation released a document titled A More Effective Arm. That document demonstrated the desire to invest in long-term projects intended to “assist experiments and pilot programs” in local police departments to implement a more “adequate” criminal justice system in response to a “seriously high incidence of crime.”

In essence, the Ford Foundation, through the NPF, desired for law enforcement to be released from the burden of “custom-laden bureaucracy” and allow “organized philanthropy” to initiate more “effective, modern crime deterrents.” The NPF was the first in a long line of organized philanthropy and has had the ear of both Republican and Democratic administrations; administrations led by those in the “high echelons of policy and policing institutions.”

Local police foundations appeared soon after in both the United States and Canada. One of the first was created in 1971 in New York City. The New York City Police Foundation (“NYCPF”) was initially funded by the Association for a Better New York (“ABNY”). The ABNY was led by a noted real estate developer and funded the NYCPF with the promise of an “open checkbook.” This was in the wake of a citywide revenue crisis and a massive police strike. The NYCPF operates today with an annual budget of over $11 million. Later, a police foundation in Vancouver, British Colombia, was started in 1976.

After that, there appears to be a lull in the creation of new foundations throughout the 1980s. It was not until the mid-90s that new foundations began to appear — Boston (1994), Ontario (1994), New Orleans (1996), and Los Angeles (1998). Research by Canadian academics Randy K. Lippert, Alex Luscombe, and Kevin Walby indicates that today there are “at least 251 police foundations in 43 states and Washington, D.C.” There are now 45 police foundations in just the state of California.

That research reveals the most recent expansion of police foundations in America began after the 2008 financial crisis. This seems to be a result of funding being cut at that time. In 2010, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (“IACP”), based in Alexandria, Virginia, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (“COPS”) launched the National Police Foundations Project (“NPFP”). COPS and IACP then began publishing manuals and hosting conferences concerning the use of police foundations in nearly every major city. Of the 251 identified police foundations, 89 were established between 2014 and 2016 in the aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri, uprising and the subsequent push by the Obama Administration to demilitarize the police. Nearly 70% of police departments reported direct partnerships with major corporations, and 46% with police foundations, according to a 2014 national survey.

Today, there are police foundations in nearly every major city. Eight metropolitan areas have police foundations with fiscal year 2019 revenues exceeding one million dollars; four are over $9 million. Most saw double-digit year-over-year revenue increases in 2019. The top six were in Seattle (a 31% increase to $1,332,138), Palm Beach (a 35% increase to $3,164,192), Atlanta (a 45% increase to $10,848,654), Houston (a 48% increase to $3,725,142), Los Angeles (a 75% increase to $9,655,223), and St. Louis (a 315% increase to $10,378,796). The largest revenue overall is still the NYCPF, which saw a 22% increase in 2019 to $11,885,187. This is in addition to a New York City public police budget that exceeds $11 billion annually. The only city with a police foundation seeing negative revenue growth between fiscal years 2018 and 2019 was Louisville, Kentucky. That foundation saw a decline in funding of over 44%. Its budget was still a significant $892,606.

According to IRS data gathered by propublica.org, many of these private foundations are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that do not have to disclose donor lists. Critics express concern that this allows the money flowing from corporations into these foundations to be “hidden from accountability, oversight and disclosure.” This is unlike public budgetary funds that “are public documents negotiated and approved by elected officials.”

Proponents believe that police departments need to have access to this funding and that the process is transparent. According to former NYCPF CEO and NPFP Director Pamela Delaney, police foundations “serv[e] as a voice of the private sector.” A website for the Denver Police Foundation claims these efforts are to “support needs for which government funds are not readily available.” The Philadelphia Police Foundation (“PPF”) says fundraisers are “all in support of the unbudgeted needs of the Philadelphia Police Department” (“PPD”).

Another proponent is Captain Rich Clowser, the deputy chief of police of the Norristown, Pennsylvania, Police Department. Clowser wrote that these foundations are “more important than ever amid public outcry for reform and defunding” of law enforcement agencies. Clowser also claims that the process of foundation funding is transparent because the Norristown Police Foundation (“NPF”) is required to file annual Pennsylvania Public Disclosure and IRS forms based on its fundraising activities.

Clowser claims that “[p]olice department fiscal budgets do not always support the goals and objectives of that department.” Clowser wrote that these goals can consist of additional training, officer wellness programs, or even community support through donations to other local nonprofits and service programs. The claim being that such programs may not be “a priority or even feasible” to police leadership or strategy. “A police foundation can focus on these important, often overlooked areas that provide for the needs of the agency to best serve its community,” said Clowser.

Police foundations can support law enforcement and the community they serve where the public budget does not. Massive corporations are willing and able to provide goods, monetary support, or services to the nonprofit police foundations in exchange for tax benefits. The Norristown community has benefited from the NPF with programs such as Coffee with a Cop, Water Ice with a Cop, and the Teen and Police Service Center. Clowser believes that funding these events through outside sources “aid[s] departments with community engagement efforts.” Such efforts are said to build trust through positive interactions with community members. “These programs, alongside the support of police foundations to keep them running, are vital to strengthening community and police relations,” concludes Clowser. These positions may reflect the fact that Clowser is also the secretary/treasurer of the NPF.

Whereas, critics vehemently disagree, arguing that these private foundations enable “some of the most troubling implicit bias practices” by law enforcement. This includes “predictive risk models” used in certain neighborhoods to identify “probable offenders” via technology from companies such as Palantir, whose software was developed with “an early investment by the CIA and is primarily used by the military.” Research has shown that this technology creates a vicious cycle where Black and brown communities experience disproportionately high rates of arrest leading to more “crime predictions.”

Many other opponents of police foundations repeatedly cite concerns of lack of oversight and transparency. The practice of private foundations funding police is considered “deeply problematic and dangerous.” While foundations are not organized to fund “core policing functions,” the lines are blurred. The Washington Post reported that police foundations “grant funding so that police and sheriffs can purchase body armor, protective vehicles and surveillance equipment.” The PPF spent $1.5 million on long guns, drones, and ballistic helmets for the PPD, which seems to support “core policing functions,” especially in a world of militarized policing.

Foundations do not have to disclose how they spend money or their donor lists. When activists demand that corporations cease donating to police foundations, it doesn’t happen. Instead, the foundations merely remove the identities of donors and board members with corporate ties. And nowhere is there evidence that any of these funds support anti-bias training, community programming, or diversity initiatives that lead to meaningful reductions in racist police violence.

The two views examined here can’t be reconciled. Clowser made no mention of any of these types of negative attributes associated with police foundations. Whether this is willful ignorance, obfuscation, or just simply “gilding the lily,” is open to debate. What we do know is that relationships between the police and vulnerable communities are not improving in America. The opposition to police foundations is well-documented and doesn’t leave much room for proponents to honestly disagree.

The Report initially reveals the extent of corporate involvement in police foundation funding. Dozens of national and transnational companies across nearly every sector of the economy, including 55 Fortune 500 companies, funded police foundations in 22 cities in fiscal years 2021 and 2022.

Some of the largest companies in “Big Tech” are involved in foundation funding. Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft all partner with and donate to the Seattle Police Foundation (“SPF”). IBM works with the foundation in Sacramento and the NYCPF, Lyft in Washington, D.C., and Adobe, Apple, and PayPal in San Jose.

Communications companies donate funds and then bid on law enforcement contracts, creating conflicts of interest. AT&T, Motorola, and Verizon each support various foundations, with Motorola having ties to ten and Verizon with ties to six. Motorola Solutions Foundation donates over one million dollars per year to various police foundations. These companies also contract with police departments to provide services.

 Fossil fuel and utility companies have prepared legislation to criminalize lawful protests. These include Chevron, General Electric, Marathon, and Shell. In Minnesota, the fossil fuel company Enbridge created security plans for the Line 3 pipeline route. In response, the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office spent $190,000 on riot gear, including gas grenades, pepper spray, batons, and flash-bang devices. Over $750,000 of these funds has been spent since April, 2021. Over 1,000 crime bills have been proposed by fossil fuel companies since the murder of George Floyd. This legislation is intended to outlaw protests at fossil fuel sites or “critical infrastructure” sites.

 The role of the media is under increased scrutiny in America, and their financial ties to police foundations have critics concerned. This includes BET, COMCAST, Disney, FOX News, The New York Times, and Paramount (formerly ViacomCBS). When media companies participate in foundation funding, it raises “concerns of potential for media bias or ‘narrative washing’ of aggressive, racist policing.”

 Even while professional athletes are taking stands against police brutality, major franchises are undermining their causes, including Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League. Dozens of teams from every league support police foundations across the nation.

 Real estate companies are notorious for outpricing property in historically minority communities through urban gentrification, and this process is “inextricably linked to racist policing.” This includes Boston Properties, CBRE, Colliers International, Cushman & Wakefield, Newmark, and Saville’s.

 Retail and food corporations like Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola, Costco, Home Depot, Kroger, Macy’s, Publix, Starbucks, Target, Waffle House, Walmart, Wendy’s, and White Castle are all massive nationwide supporters. Target has directly funded foundations in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, Sacramento, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Starbucks donates to the SPF and runs the local “Coffee with a Cop” program. Coca-Cola has donated millions to the Atlanta Police Foundation (“APF”).

 Many of the largest financial institutions have at least one corporate board member or donor involved in the internal oversight of these foundations, and every one of the 23 foundations examined has at least one. This includes Ally Financial, American Express, Bank of America, Black Rock, Chase, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, M&T Bank, Morgan Stanley, Northwest Mutual, Securian Financial Group, SunTrust (now named Trust), and Wells Fargo to name a few. The Report notes that over 140 financial companies were identified. Citibank’s chair Ed Skyler was honored at the NYCPF’s 2021 50th Anniversary Gala. 

The Report argues that a partnership between corporations and a foundation “create[s] a sanctioned way to funnel otherwise prohibited gifts to police departments.” Citing concerns about unaccountable and “hyper-militarized” police, critics argue that these foundations “reinforce entrenched power structures, abuses of power and the wealth gap.” The wealthy and powerful become directly connected to policing that then “exists to protect capital and prevent the redistribution of power and resources.” The Houston Police Foundation (“HPF”) funds purchased SWAT equipment, long range acoustic devices, and dogs for the K-9 unit. These K-9 units are known to be lethal and “police dog bites [send] roughly 3,600 Americans to emergency rooms every year” according to the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine.

The HPF is currently raising $10 million to build a “tactical village.” Referred to as “Cop City,” this massive police training center is slated to be built on protected forest land. The same facilities are being proposed for Washington, D.C., and Atlanta at a cost of $90 million. The APF’s “Operation Shield” funded a citywide network of over 11,000 surveillance cameras, making Atlanta the “most surveilled city in the United States.”

This system also breeds corruption because foundations can hide their donation activities from public view. There is a risk of conflicts of interest and preferential treatment to donors when they seek to influence policy or secure contracts. Many of these corporations have relationships with police departments while having or pursuing contracts for services. “I get very concerned that people who give money to these foundations get favoritism over people who don’t … The only way to prevent this — or the appearance of this — is to have a more transparent system that is regulated like campaign finance,” says Erwin Chemerinsky, University of California Irvine Law School Dean.

Coach, Major League Baseball, and the Motion Picture Association used donations to the NYCPF to have the NYPD police trademark infringement and conduct undercover purchases. Axon, formerly Taser International, donated 80 tasers to the LAPD in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, Axon was chosen to fulfill the LAPD’s multimillion-dollar body camera contract, avoiding the open bidding process. Axon did the same in New York.

Foundations often lead to the endangerment of minority communities and undermine democracy. Funds are used to “support the hyper-surveillance of Black, Brown, and Indigenous neighborhoods.” This level of surveillance was used during the George Floyd protests; protests considered by the New York Times to be “the largest sustained mobilization in U.S. history.” While the vast majority of protestors were white, those arrested and jailed were “disproportionately Black: 70% in Chicago and 60% in Atlanta.” Protestors in majority Black and Latino communities experienced “violent arrests in ambushes by heavily armed police.”

Flock, another corporation operating in Atlanta, acquired approval from the city council to install additional cameras and license plate readers through the APF on gas pumps throughout the city. In Washington, D.C., a private security rebate program was launched by Mayor Muriel Bowser and plans to fund nearly 18,000 security cameras in the city. Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, and Minneapolis have similar programs. “The fact is that surveillance technologies are acquired by police departments all over the country all the time with zero public input,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland.

Since the 1970s, the average police budget has grown to eclipse vital social service budgets, particularly in cities with large, expanding Black neighborhoods. Beginning in the 1990s, police spending per capita has increased 46% nationally. America spends nearly $100 billion annually on policing, even while crime rates continue to decrease. At the same time, foundation websites claim major police departments experience “financial strain and unmet needs.” Meaningful budget allocations for social services and schools are slashed, while funding of “basic needs for children, health and elders are under threat.” In 2020, the LAPD budget was over $2.7 billion, nearly 52% of all discretionary spending in the city’s overall budget. In Atlanta, nearly one-third of the city’s $700 million budget goes to fund the police.

The Report calls this foundation fundraising activity “a party you’re not invited to,” where foundation board members and titans of industry rub shoulders. Only large corporations and the rich seem to be able to pay to participate. The NYCPF requires a $100,000 donation for a “platinum-level sponsorship.” The APF’s “Link Up Against Crime” golf tournament requires a minimum $3,500 donation for a four-person team, and $20,000 to be a presenting sponsor. The St. Louis Police Foundation has sponsorship levels from $2,500 to $25,000 for its “Breakfast with the Chief” event.

When citizens complain to these corporations about their participation, the response is usually to scrub foundation website information. Many would pivot from promoting their foundation sponsors to removing the names of corporate donors and board members. This was done by the NYCPF, the SPF, the PPF, and others in Charlotte, Louisville, and San Diego.

The Report concludes that scrutiny of these practices is intensifying, but the work is only beginning. Corporations are being asked to divest immediately from foundation funding. Policymakers are holding hearings, mandating disclosure, and requiring public approval of foundation expenditures.

Employees at Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Target have successfully persuaded their companies to start limiting their contributions to police foundations. This pressure has already resulted in a response from some corporations and city governments. The New York City Council has added a budget requirement to report on how foundation funds are used by the NYPD. Color of Change persuaded Coca-Cola to drop its board seat on the APF. Wells Fargo has stated it paused donations, and PitchBook’s CEO stepped down from the SPD. In Pennsylvania, the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University have stopped funding the PPF.

This 1970s “neoliberal experiment” of lifting the “burden of bureaucracy” from local police by private corporate donors has resulted in a militarized and unaccountable police force. The move to defund the police must take a wider turn to dismantle an “undemocratic philanthropic structure that is a far cry from healthy police-community relations.” 

Additional sources: The Guardian, nonprofitquarterly.org, The Philadelphia Inquirer, policefoundation.org

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