In 2007, as it pushed to build a state-of-the-art surveillance facility, the Los Angeles Police Department cast an acquisitive eye on software being developed by Palantir, a startup funded in part by the Central Intelligence Agency’s venture capital arm.
Originally designed for spy agencies, Palantir’s technology allowed users to track individuals with unprecedented reach, connecting information from conventional sources like crime reports with more controversial data gathered by surveillance cameras and license plate readers that automatically, and indiscriminately, photographed passing cars.
The LAPD could have used a small portion of its multibillion-dollar annual budget to purchase the software, but that would have meant going through a year-long process requiring public meetings, approval from the City Council, and, in some cases, competitive bidding.
There was a quicker, quieter way to get the software: as a gift from the Los Angeles Police Foundation, a private charity. In November 2007, at the behest of then Police Chief William Bratton, the foundation approached Target Corp., which contributed $200,000 to buy the software, said the foundation’s executive director, Cecilia Glassman, in an interview. Then the foundation donated it to the police department.
Across the nation, private foundations are increasingly being tapped to provide police with technology and weaponry that — were it purchased with public money — would come under far closer scrutiny.
In Los Angeles, foundation money has been used to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of license plate readers, which were the subject of a civil-rights lawsuit filed against the region’s law enforcement agencies by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (A judge rejected the groups’ claims earlier this year.)
Private funds also have been used to upgrade “Stingray” devices, which have triggered debate in numerous jurisdictions because they vacuum up records of cellphone metadata, calls, text messages and data transfers over a half-mile radius.
New York and Los Angeles have the nation’s oldest and most generous police foundations, each providing their city police departments with grants totaling about $3 million a year. But similar groups have sprouted up in dozens of jurisdictions, from Atlanta, Georgia, to Oakland, California. In Atlanta, the police foundation has bankrolled the surveillance cameras that now blanket the city, as well as the center where police officers monitor live video feeds.
Proponents of these private fundraising efforts say they have become indispensable in an era of tightening budgets, helping police to acquire the ever-more sophisticated tools needed to combat modern crime.
“There’s very little discretionary money for the department,” said Steve Soboroff, a businessman who is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian board that oversees the LAPD’s policies and operations. “A grant application to the foundation cuts all the red tape, or almost all of the red tape.”
But critics say police foundations operate with little transparency or oversight and can be a way for wealthy donors and corporations to influence law enforcement agencies’ priorities.
It’s not uncommon for the same companies to be donors to the same police foundations that purchase their products for local police departments. Or for those companies also to be contractors for the same police agencies to which their products are being donated.
“No one really knows what’s going on,” said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, a good government group in New York. “The public needs to know that these contributions are being made voluntarily and have no bearing on contracting decisions.”
Palantir, the recipient of the Los Angeles Police Foundation’s largesse in 2008, donated $10,000 to become a three-star sponsor of the group’s annual “Above and Beyond” awards ceremony in 2013 and has made similar-sized gifts to the New York police foundation. The privately held Palo Alto firm, which had estimated revenues of $250 million in 2011 and is preparing to go public, also has won millions of dollars of contracts from the Los Angeles and New York police departments over the last three years.
Palantir officials did not respond to questions about its relationships with police departments and the foundations linked to them. The New York City Police Foundation did not answer questions about Palantir’s donations, or its technology gifts to the NYPD.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she saw danger in the growing web of ties between police departments, foundations and private donors.
“We run the risk of policy that is in the service of moneyed interests,” she said.
The nation’s first police foundation was established in New York City in 1971 by the Association for a Better New York, a private group headed by real estate magnate Lewis Rudin.
In the late 1970s, when violent crime soared and the city’s finances were shaky, the foundation paid for bulletproof vests, which were distributed via a raffle. “It changed the administration into believing bulletproof vests are necessary equipment for the job,” a former New York cop said.
Altogether, the New York City Police Foundation has distributed more than $120 million in grants since it was set up and has spurred a host of imitators.
One was the Los Angeles Police Foundation, which was founded in 1998 by then Police Chief Bernard Parks.
Its first modest mission was to pay to outfit police units with medical kits to treat gunshot wounds. “There were incidents with officers injured and paramedics were getting there too late,” said Parks, who is now a city councilman.
Over its lifespan, the foundation has provided the LAPD with grants totaling more than $20 million, much of it to acquire uncontroversial items such as bicycles and police dogs.
In New York and Los Angeles, it has long been true that top police officials have exercised considerable control over the use of foundation money.
Glassman said that the chief of police’s office deals directly with the Los Angeles foundation, identifying which products and services the department wants and who the vendor should be. At Bratton’s direction, private donations paid for a team of consultants to devise a plan to reorganize the LAPD.
According to press reports, Ray Kelly, New York’s police commissioner for a brief stint in the early ’90s and from 2002 to 2013, held similar sway with the New York City foundation. At his behest, foundation funds even paid for Kelly’s membership at the Harvard Club, an NYPD spokesman confirmed.
More recently, though, the New York and Los Angeles foundations have turned to funding technology initiatives, many of them involving surveillance systems.
An audit included with the New York foundation’s 2013 annual tax filing said almost half of the $6.5 million distributed by the group that year went to what it called the police department’s “technology campaign.”
The foundation was given $4.6 million by JPMorgan Chase to buy 1,000 laptops and security monitoring software for the police department’s main data center, according to the foundation’s tax documentation and press releases from JP Morgan.
Records for the Los Angeles foundation are more specific, showing outlays of almost $250,000 in 2010 for tracking equipment for the police department’s counter-terrorism investigators and $460,000 in 2011 on surveillance cameras and license plate readers.
According to its 2012 tax filing, the foundation gave almost $25,000 to upgrade “Stingray” devices placed in skid row to monitor drug transactions.
Police boosters say there’s no need for public debate over these types of acquisitions.
“I think we all see ourselves as part of a larger puzzle, which is making sure that Los Angeles has a world class police department, and we’re just the private funding source,” said Glassman of the Police Foundation. “The commission is an oversight board and the department is here to protect and serve.”
But Peter Bibring of the ACLU of Southern California said that when police acquire new surveillance tools it can reshape their approach to policing 2013 shifts that, when enabled by private money, are occurring outside public view.
“These technologies are adopted without any kind of public discussion, without clear policies on how they should be used,” he said.
As private charities, police foundations are subject to reporting rules set by the tax code rather than the public information laws that apply to law enforcement agencies. In many cases, foundations give few details about where their money comes from and even fewer about what it’s used to buy.
The New York City Police Foundation lists contributors who give $1,000 or more on its website, separating them into donors ($1,000-$5,000), benefactors ($5,000-$10,000), bronze ($10,000-$25,000), silver ($25,000-$50,000), gold ($50,000-$100,000) and platinum ($100,000 or more).
The group offers no specifics at all on what its grants are used for, however. The police department’s annual budget lumps them all into a single line item labeled “non-city funds.”
Despite the minimal amount of disclosure, it’s clear that several companies are both vendors and donors to the New York foundation. Some also hold large contracts to supply goods and services to the police department.
The NYPD’s citywide surveillance hub uses software from IBM, which gave between $10,000 and 25,000 to the foundation. According to its website and tax documents, the foundation helped fund creation of the hub. IBM did not respond when asked about its relationships with New York’s police foundation and police department.
DynTek Inc. made a contribution of similar size to the foundation and has won more than $47 million in technology contracts with New York City since 2008. It lobbied the police department for more business as recently as this January, according to disclosure records. DynTek officials also did not respond to questions.
The New York Police Foundation’s bylaws say it reviews potential conflicts of interest involving donors, but foundation officials did not respond to questions about this process.
It appears that no one else is watching out for these overlapping relationships: New York’s Comptroller and Conflict of Interest Board, which oversee procurement and conflicts of interest for the city, said they don’t track the police foundation’s donations to the police department.
Los Angeles has put more protections in place 2013- at least on paper. According to the city’s Administrative Code, the Police Commission must approve all foundation gifts to the police department. Donations with a value of more than $10,000 also must be approved by the City Council and its Public Safety Committee.
Accompanying each donation is a signed assurance from LAPD staff that states, “all possible conflicts of interest have been researched, and this donation does not reflect negatively on the Department or City in general.”
In practice, though, the police commission puts donations from the foundation on its consent agenda, which typically passes with no discussion. In December 2013, for example, the commission approved a gift of 50 stun guns from TASER International Inc., valued at more than $48,000, in less than five seconds, video archives show. The donated models are an experimental product that LAPD officers are field testing for the company, according to city records. The City Council’s Public Safety Committee and, later, the full council, also approved the donation with no debate.
In some cases, foundations gifts may not be getting even this level of scrutiny. There’s no indication in records that the City Council ever voted on or approved the 2007 donation of the Palantir software.
A recent kerfuffle involving LAPD Officer Brandi Pearson, the daughter of Police Chief Charlie Beck, demonstrated the holes in vetting process for police foundation gifts. In March, the foundation paid $6,000 to buy a horse from Pearson, then donated it to the police department’s mounted unit. Beck himself signed off on the foundation’s purchase, but neither he nor foundation officials informed the Police Commission about the arrangement. Details of the horse’s purchase only emerged this August when the Los Angeles Times got hold of the story.
Ana Muniz, a former researcher with the Inglewood-based Youth Justice Coalition who has studied the LAPD’s gang policing efforts, called the porous system for monitoring foundation donations unsettling.
“At least with public contracts and spending, there’s a facade of transparency and accountability,” Muniz said. “With private partnerships, with private technology, there’s nothing.”
Parks said that the Los Angeles foundation was supposed to avoid taking donations from companies if they were bidding on contracts for the police department, but acknowledged there are no rules barring this.
As Motorola and Raytheon vied for a $600 million contract to provide the regional emergency communications system used by the LAPD, each company made generous donations to the police foundation.
Motorola gave more than $164,000 through a foundation controlled by company executives in 2010 and 2011. It also appointed Bratton, who left the LAPD in October 2009, to its board of directors in December 2010, a post that paid $240,000 a year.
“As part of our commitment to public safety, the Motorola Solutions Foundation, Motorola Solutions’ philanthropic arm, supports public safety nonprofits that provide training for officers and safety education for the general public, as well as memorials to honor the service and sacrifice of fallen officers, and to help fund scholarships for their families,” said Tama McWinney, a Motorola spokesperson, in a written response to questions about why the company had donated to the police foundation.
Raytheon countered by donating $311,000 in equipment to the police foundation to upgrade the LAPD’s existing radio system. “Our community engagement includes strategic partnerships, individual empowerment programs, employee volunteer efforts and regional projects that are aligned with support of first responders, education initiatives and our warfighters,” Michael Doble, Raytheon’s director of public relations, said in a statement.
Motorola ended up winning the contract.
Soboroff said he had no concerns that companies were donating to the foundation to improve their chances to do business with the city — donors were typically driven by “an insatiable appetite to help,” he said, not self-interest.
At a recent fundraiser hosted by a wealthy family, members of the police department’s canine, equestrian and SWAT units helped raise $180,000 to buy dogs, horses and equipment.
“All they need to do is see a menu of what we need and they’re willing to play,” Soboroff said.
Parks, however, said corporate donors should be seen with a more skeptical eye and that, in his view, it taints the contracting process when companies are allowed to make gifts to the same police agencies from which they are seeking work.
“If you are taking money from Motorola and all of a sudden Motorola is providing you with your radios, those are major concerns,” he said. “You should shy away from those relationships.”
Ultimately, Parks remains a supporter of police foundations and said Los Angeles’ group has provided critical support to the city’s police. But he has come to believe these groups need more substantial oversight than they are getting.
“You have to be diligent to look at what people are purchasing,” he said. “You don’t want to say, when did we buy 50 drones?”
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.