US corporations fund police through a rarely-scrutinized backdoor route, report reveals

Protests over police violence and racism have amplified calls to re-examine police budgets in the United States, with several large companies announcing they are re-evaluating their commercial ties with police departments.

But a new report sheds light on the myriad other ways corporations engage with police forces, including by donating to police foundations that don’t face the same scrutiny as police departments.

The report was released on Thursday by the Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit corporate and government accountability research institute, and its research database project LittleSis. It details how more than 25 large corporations in the past three years have contributed funding to private police foundations – industry groups designated as nonprofits that provide additional funds to police forces.

Police proponents say the foundations have emerged as police departments face budget cuts and are a means to supplement the force with top-of-the-line technology and weaponry. But critics argue police departments are already overfunded – they receive 20% to 45% of discretionary funds in cities across the US – and that funding through foundations allows police to operate with little oversight. Foundations, according to a 2014 report from ProPublica, “can be a way for wealthy donors and corporations to influence law enforcement agencies’ priorities”.

Legally, police budgets are typically public documents that must be approved by elected officials. But designated as private charities, police foundations are not subject to the same public information laws that apply to law enforcement agencies.

These foundations receive millions of dollars a year from private and corporate donors, according to the report, and are able to use the funds to purchase equipment and weapons with little public input. The analysis notes, for example, how the Los Angeles police department in 2007 used foundation funding to purchase surveillance software from controversial technology firm Palantir. Buying the technology with private foundation funding rather than its public budget allowed the department to bypass requirements to hold public meetings and gain approval from the city council.

Police move through the streets during demonstrations over the death of George Floyd on 1 June 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

The Houston police foundation has purchased for the local police department a variety of equipment, including Swat equipment, sound equipment and dogs for the K-9 unit, according to the report. The Philadelphia police foundation purchased for its police force long guns, drones and ballistic helmets, and the Atlanta police foundation helped fund a major surveillance network of over 12,000 cameras.

In addition to weaponry, foundation funding can also go toward specialized training and support programs that complement the department’s policing strategies, according to one police foundation.

“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,” said Gin Armstrong, a senior research analyst at LittleSis.

A variety of companies – including financial institutions, technology companies, retailers, local universities and sports teams, provide funding to police foundations. Donations may be, in part, to curry favor with a force that exists primarily to protect property and capital, the report said.

“Police foundations are a key space for orchestrating, normalizing and celebrating the collaboration between corporate power and the police,” the LittleSis report said.

Among the companies with ties to police is Amazon. The online giant last week implemented a one-year moratorium on the use of its artificial intelligence software Rekognition by police departments after extended criticism from human rights groups.

But the company still has a number of less-direct connections to the police, according to the LittleSis report. A representative of the company currently sits on the executive committee of the Seattle police foundation’s board and Amazon has been an official partner to the police foundation, donating at least $5,000 according to the foundation website.

It also donates to police foundations across the US through its charitable program, AmazonSmile and still partners with more than 1,000 police forces through its smart doorbell product Ring.

Amazon declined to comment on its continued ties with police and police foundations.

Bank of America has seats on both the Chicago and New York City police foundation boards. According to tax filings examined by LittleSis, it has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to police foundations, including $200,000 to the NYC police foundation, $51,250 to the Atlanta police foundation, $25,000 to the Boston police foundation, $10,000 to the Los Angeles police foundation, as well as smaller donations to police foundations in Yarmouth, Massachusetts; Sarasota, Florida; Abilene, Texas; Duluth, Minnesota; Bellevue, Washington; and Sacramento and Glendale, California.

Bank of America announced on 2 June a four-year commitment to support economic opportunity initiatives to combat racial inequality accelerated by the global pandemic.

Seattle-based Starbucks is an active donor to the Seattle police foundation and has a representative on its board, according to the report. The coffee retailer also recently donated $25,000 to the NYC police foundation.

Bank of America and Starbucks did not respond to requests for comment.

Critics argue police departments are already overfunded – they receive 20% to 45% of discretionary funds in cities across the US.

Critics argue police departments are already overfunded – they receive 20% to 45% of discretionary funds in cities across the US. Photograph: Kenneth Martin/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Target has made major contributions to police foundations across the country, according to the report, including the NYC, Atlanta and Seattle police foundations. A $200,000 donation from Target in 2007 helped the LA police foundation purchase sophisticated surveillance equipment for the LAPD, the report found.

Currently, Target is a sponsor of the Washington DC police foundation and has a representative on the board, the report notes. In addition to funding police foundations, Target offers additional funding to local agencies through its “public safety grant” program.

A spokesman for Target said the donation to police foundations is a “very small portion of the 5% of annual profits Target gives back to the community”.

Facebook, Google and Microsoft are also all partners and donors to the Seattle police foundation, and Microsoft sits on the foundation’s board, the report found. Microsoft and Facebook declined to comment on their donations to police foundations. Google did not respond to request for comment.

Microsoft has publicly stated it will ban police from using its facial recognition technology.

Evan Greer, the deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, said the report highlights companies can’t claim to stand for human rights while funding government agencies accused of violating them. “Corporations who cozy up to police, build surveillance software to them, or funnel them money through shady donations are actively propping up systemic racist violence and oppression.”

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