By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
One thing I learned from studying with Tom Ferguson: follow the money. That’s the Golden Rule for understanding American politics and other money-driven political systems.
Alas, political scientists and other students of politics often don’t do this, for a variety of reasons, not least that they don’t want to admit – let alone document – how our entire political system is awash with money, let alone completely dominated by it.
I was therefore pleased when this report crossed my desk earlier this month, Police Foundations: A Corporate-Sponsored Threat to Democracy and Black Lives, produced by Color Of Change and Public Accountability Initiative/ LittleSis. I’d intended to write this up last week, but will instead substitute it today for a post I’d planned on vaccine mandate litigation. That’ll have to wait until I can check in again with a lawyer friend who’s in the thick of many of these lawsuits. Rest assured, these aren’t going away and there will be ample opportunity for me discuss them soon.
The police foundation report is chock-full with good data and information and I encourage interested readers to look at it in full, especially as some graphic design considerations prevented me from reproducing data and information I’d otherwise wanted to include. In addition, the report’s organization is somewhat repetitive. One can grasp its gist by looking at the foreward and executive summary.
Any serious attempt at policy reform must come to grips with how it’s at present undermined by police foundations, which are funded by corporations who publicly proclaim support for reform and protest movements and at the same time privately funnel money that ensures nothing fundamental will change.
Corporate Funding of Police Foundations: The Problem
From the report:
On June 12, 2020, with the nation and world still reeling from the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Atlanta police murdered Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man. Days later, after the city’s police chief resigned in shame and Brooks’ murderer was charged, Atlanta police officers staged a “blue flu” protest and called in sick.
But this isn’t the end of the story. On June 18, as Brooks’ family made funeral arrangements for their loved one, the Atlanta Police Foundation announced it would give each Atlanta police officer a $500 bonus. Again: One day after officers walked out on the job because charges were filed against their colleagues for the murder of Rayshard Brooks, the Atlanta Police Foundation rewarded police with a bonus (report, p. 3).
So, where did the money come from? Again, per the report:
Police foundations are private organizations that funnel corporate money into policing, protecting corporate interests and enabling state-sanctioned violence against Black communities and communities of color. You might be more familiar with the Atlanta Police Foundation’s sponsors: Amazon, Bank of America, Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, Waffle House, Wells Fargo, Uber and UPS, to name a few. These are the donors we know about. As calls for accountability increased in recent years, police foundations have taken additional steps to scrub their websites and hide donor information.
There is a police foundation in nearly every major American city, behind almost every police department, backed by wealthy donors and giant multinational corporations. In 2020, many police foundations’ top corporate sponsors made public statements in support of Black Lives Matter, while providing a corporate slush fund for police (citations omitted, report, p. 3).
Alas, the fancy graphics of the report don’t allow me to reproduce easily their valuable list of corporate donors. Rest assured, many of the usual suspects seem to be here. From the report, grouped by industry:
- Wall Street (Bank of America, BlackRock Chase, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, SunTrust, Wells Fargo);
- Big Tech (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Microsoft, Uber);
- Fossil fuels (Chevron Exelon, GE, Marathan, Shell);
- Media (BET, Comcast, Disney, Fox News, The New York Times, Viacom/CBS,
- Communications (AT7T, Motorola, Verizon);
- Real Estate (bxp, cBRE, Colliers International, Cushman & Wakefield, Newmark);
- Retail & Food (Chick-fil-A, Coca Cola, Costco Wholesale, Kroger, Starbucks, \Target, Waffle House, Wendy’s, White Castle);
- Professional Sports (Major League Baseball, NBA, NFL) (report, p. 9).
Jerri-Lynn here: Notice the absence of Apple; I wonder whether that’s an oversight?
Also notice some spectacular hypocrisy here. Per the report:
Football, baseball and basketball franchises all fund police foundations. Even as players take courageous stands in the movement to protect Black lives, NBA, MLB and NFL franchises are involved in police foundations, funding the harm they inflict on Black communities (report, p. 3).
Police foundations do lots of damage beyond their effect on policing practices alone – as serious as that injury is, particularly if one gets pulled over with a cop with an axe to grind. And I should point out that rogue cops don’t just target people of color. This happened to me during my first year at MIT, riding in the backseat of a car a friend was driving back to Brookline, to visit his MIT prof Dad and his OB-GYN mother. His girlfriend was in the front seat. The cop didn’t like college students who hailed from Brookline (the address on the driver’s driving license) and we were soon at the police station, hauled up on some bogus driving charges. It was the cop’s word against ours and you know how that turned out. I’ve never forgotten my feeling of powerlessness. (For the record, IIRC, it was late afternoon, and no one in the car had been drinking.) And I should say that I’m not here trying to claim my experience was equivalent to ‘driving while Black’. I well understand the Cambridge cop was unlikely to gun down three white college students taking a Sunday afternoon drive along Massachusetts Avenue. We escaped, frightened but more or less intact – although my friend’s insurance rates certainly skyrocketed.
Back to police foundations. They’re also a conduit for funnelling money to police and away from other more pressing municipal needs – health care, pleasant public spaces and amenities, schools – during a time of stressed municipal budgets. Police foundations are also a major source of funding for the militarization of police, a phenomenon that encourages police to resort to violence as the go-to option, rather than mediation or other non-violent techniques. Again, over to the report:
As communities across the nation demand critical investments in what will actually keep us safe, healthy, and housed, police foundations exist to both funnel private money to policing and to secretly continue the militarization of large and small police departments across the country. As private entities, police foundations and their corporate sponsors protect corporate interests and increase huge police budgets outside of government oversight, with no accountability to the communities that police are sworn to serve. The identities of private donors whose money goes towards purchasing police equipment and funding police programs should be public information — especially if the donations are coming from powerful corporations.
By claiming to provide equipment and technology that massively-funded police departments “can’t afford,” police foundations pay for police violence, from SWAT equipment to lethal police dogs officers use to terrorize Black communities, repress protests and injure racial justice protesters. Corporations cannot claim to “stand with BLM protesters” on social media while funding violence against protesters and Black people behind closed doors (report, p. 3).
Moreover, crucially, police foundations also thwart political efforts to reform and demilitarise policing. Per the report:
Since 2014, in the wake of the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Obama administration’s push to demilitarize police departments, dozens of police foundations sprung up to thwart reform and further militarization. According to publicly-available data, 55 Fortune 500 companies supported police foundations in 2020 and 2021.
In this report, Color Of Change and LittleSis have compiled the most extensive research to date on the links between police foundations and corporations, identifying over 1,200 corporate donations or executives serving as board members for 23 of the largest police foundations in the country. The report is also the first to discuss the harm police foundations inflict on Black and Brown communities nationwide.
Our conclusion: Any effort to demand safety and reduce the flow of public funds to police must also directly address the flow of private funds to police. Police foundations — policing’s secret weapon — are nothing without corporate donors, corporate partnerships, and the legitimization that follows. This report also explains how police accountability and corporate accountability are even more inextricably linked than they may appear. We cannot let corporations talk about “Black lives” on their Twitter feeds while also funding police violence on our streets (report, p. 4).
Just permit me to conclude a bit more here on the history of police foundations, the first of which was set up in NYC in 1971 explicitly to thwart reform:
The history of police foundations is one of powerful corporations shaping policing in their interests. The first modern police foundation was formed to financially back the largest police force in the country, the NYPD. The New York City Police Foundation was founded in 1971 in the wake of a police strike and city-wide revenue crisis by the Association for a Better New York, a business association led by a prominent real estate developer.11 Two years later when the city administration considered privatizing the police department, the association promised an “open checkbook” to fund the initiative. Now with an annual budget of $11 million…
Although the NYC Police Foundation will turns 50 in 2021, most U.S. police foundations were founded after 2000 — and many were supported by the National Police Foundations Project, a partnership between Target and the U.S. Department of Justice. Nearly 40% of police foundations were founded between 2014 and 2016, creating a new source of funding for departments as the Obama Administration pushed to demilitarize police in the wake of the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri (citations omitted, report, p. 12).
Today police foundations secure tens of millions of dollars in revenue each year, with thirteen police foundations reporting revenues of over $1 million in their latest available IRS filings, for a total of nearly $60 million (report, p. 13).
In addition to feeding the militarization impulse, police foundations accelerate other trends most civil libertarians would object to, including expanding surveillance. From the report:
Through police foundations, private donors and corporations fund expanded surveillance — and the coordination of public and private surveillance — that fuels gentrification and the criminalization of Black people. The Atlanta Police Foundation, for example, has funded a network of 11,000 surveillance cameras to monitor overpoliced Black Atlantans, making Atlanta the most surveilled city in the United States. Across the country, police have used recent protests as an excuse to unleash new surveillance technologies, including those funded by police foundations, on protesters (citations omitted, report ,p. 7).
They also promote ‘copoganda.’ From the report:
Through rewards tiplines like “Crime Stoppers,” advertising, special events, media relationships and more, police foundations drive publicity and messages that contribute to misconceptions about crime and the normalization of constant surveillance and ever-growing policing (report, p. 7).
What Is to Be Done?
The report recommends some concrete steps. These include:
As large corporations make pledges for racial equity and adopt new policies for diversity, equity and inclusion, they must also take action and divest from aggressive, racist policing. This requires divesting from police foundations, not participating in their boards, and ensuring that their brands are no longer used to fund and legitimize police violence against Black, Brown and Indigenous communities (report, p. 11).
In addition, policymakers should require disclosure of donors and their expenditures, looking hard at conflicts of interest, and require public funding of these initiatives.
Various cities, including NYC, are considering these and other reforms. I may examine these in greater detail in a future post, as this one is getting on the long side.
Bottom line: follow the money. Cut it off while significantly ramping up disclosure and police foundations should wither away and die. This is one necessary step to achieve police reform.