There’s little scrutiny when private donors pay for controversial tech.
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.