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Giving Back to Themselves

Police foundations exemplify the logic of racial capitalism

There’s a photograph from the New York Times Styles section circa Spring 2017, in which Somers Farkas, a socialite in a black dress, grins into the glare of a camera lens. She is tan and glamorous and bears an eerie resemblance to a Cindy Sherman photograph. Somers and her husband, Jonathan Farkas, are fixtures at black tie events. The couple rang in this strange year at Mar-a-Lago for Don Jr.’s birthday; Jonathan and other members of his family once ran in circles with Jeffrey Epstein. In the New York Times photograph, hooked around Somers’s waist is the arm of Robert K. Boyce, the NYPD’s then-Chief of Detectives. Somers is a trustee of the New York City Police Foundation, a non-profit entity bankrolled by the city’s wealthy that raises funds for additional policing programs and equipment, outside of the NYPD’s public budget. The image of her and Boyce is a far cry from those that have populated social media feeds lately, in which riot gear-clad cops unceremoniously beat protesters over the head.

A year prior to this gala scene, a plane flew over the City of Baltimore, secretly collecting around a million images of the city over the course of several months through the eyes of a camera surveillance system called the “Hawkeye II.” This new experimental program was a $360,000 gift from former Enron trader and billionaire, John Arnold, and his wife, Laura Arnold, who contacted Hawkeye’s manufacturer after hearing a Radiolab episode on surveillance technology used in Iraq. Despite these bizarre, arbitrary beginnings, an evaluation of the program by a national police nonprofit declared that not only was this aerial surveillance a perfectly reasonable program for the Baltimore PD to undertake, but that it was a “hallmark of courageous leadership” to have tested it at that moment—less than a year after the Baltimore Police Department killed Freddie Gray, who died after officers left his spine “80 percent severed” in the back of a police van during transport.

Today, as protesters on the ground imagine a world without police, the carceral system, and the murder and maiming of Black people, the preceding descriptions read as more than grotesque. In contrast to the now commonplace videos of police brutality against protesters and bystanders, the landing pages of police foundations seem frozen in time and a bygone sensibility, where photographs of new technologies, cuddly K-9 units, and gala stages populate carousels and image galleries. 

The model of the police foundation was piloted in 1971 in New York City. As a series of corporate bankruptcies and financial collapses pushed the city to ruin, a real estate and business interest group, A Better New York (ABNY), banded together to prevent their assets from being depleted by a mass exodus from the city and the austerity budget that would follow. They funded a number of programs and services, including public safety, strategically inserting themselves between an estranged mayor’s office and the police union. ABNY exploited the racialized narrative of “the urban crisis,” and they hired private security forces while encouraging their cooperation with the police. In one instance, they even funded a private radio channel through which their hired patrolmen directly collaborated with police in Times Square. The goal was to preserve and attract new investment through a rehabilitation of the city’s image: the police foundation was established the very same year that ABNY popularized “the Big Apple” as a marketing slogan.

In contrast to the now commonplace videos of police brutality against protesters and bystanders, the landing pages of police foundations seem frozen in time and a bygone sensibility.

Last year, the New York City Police Foundation took in over $10 million in revenue. The funds flow not only from self-declared philanthropists and socialites, but also from corporations like McKinsey and Company, Deloitte, Morgan Stanley, Blackstone and so many other notorious influencers of financial markets and governments. The legacies of these donors are felt on the streets, at dinner tables, in credit scores and bank accounts; on the list are entities who caused homes to be boarded up and foreclosed upon, layoffs to be strategically executed, and communities to be stripped bare by the hedged bets of financialized capital.

While New York’s police foundation was the first in the nation, it took some time for other cities to follow. In the 1990s, urban austerity politics and a neoliberal turn toward public-private partnerships made the foundation model an attractive option (though police departments have overall been affected markedly less by cuts than other municipal services). As the private sector increasingly had a hand in the development of downtowns, parks, transportation, and other public goods around cities, it seemed natural that police departments would follow. Today, there are hundreds of police foundations around the country and in Canada. Most major cities have one. The foundations have been particularly prominent during times of fiscal austerity and crisis; they were important funding sources following 9/11 and the Great Recession.

The University of Winnipeg’s Dr. Kevin Walby, the University of Windsor’s Randy K. Lippert, and University of Toronto PhD student Alex Luscombe have undertaken systematic research of these organizations in both the Canadian and American contexts. Their findings indicate that while these nonprofits purport to be transparent, the material result is obfuscation. Police foundations often advertise their most palatable and marketable purchases, lining their websites and the covers of their annual reports with pictures of police award ceremonies and youth programs. But these images disguise more than they reveal. As Walby noted, “Philanthropy is one of the key rhetorical strategies. Transparency is another key rhetorical strategy, and yet when you start to look at the networks that are formed between criminal justice and private capital, it’s not transparency but a kind of murky nepotism that emerges.”

According to their findings, police foundations grew the most under President Obama. Pamela Delaney, the former president of the New York City Police Foundation, worked with the Obama administration’s community policing office to develop a scaling program to encourage the creation of these foundations around the nation. Ironically, Delaney’s organization even partnered with the Target Corporation, which hosted an event for police professionals at its St. Paul headquarters in 2011. Reform, and the strategic softening of the police’s image, appear to be guiding objectives for many of these foundations, especially in recent years. Walby and Luscombe’s research observes increases in foundation formation in 2014, 2015, and 2016 following the Ferguson uprisings and related protests around the nation. Foundations have often funded body cameras and neighborhood-based policing initiatives, supposedly meant to engender goodwill in the community.

However, as Walby points out, “Much contrary to that friendly, fluffy imagery in the foundation imaging and communication, the moneys are actually spent in large part on militarizing the police.” As non-profit entities, foundations not only augment police budgets; they are separate from the public procurement process. As ProPublica documented, multibillion-dollar corporations funded the acquisition of a long list of surveillance technologies for the LAPD. Their reporting also revealed that it is not uncommon for technology companies like Motorola and Raytheon to provide donations to support foundations in the hopes of later winning contracts in procurement process. This entanglement of private and privatized security with public law enforcement is a key feature of foundation networks. In 1994, Boston’s police foundation was first informally convened by Robert F. Johnson, president of First Security Services Corp., a private security firm that consulted with multiple major police agencies around the country. Included around this table were business leaders, as well as Northeastern University and Harvard.

Today, police foundation donors run the gamut from socialites and celebrities to real estate developers, banks, corporate law firms, fossil fuel companies, and technology companies. A recent analysis by LittleSis demonstrates the sheer scale of these entanglements. Each city seems to have its own perverse local flair. In Philadelphia, where universities encroach into and often displace Black neighborhoods, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania are major donors. Mark Wahlberg and Tom Brady have made appearances at Boston’s annual police foundation gala. Unlikely companies have also been involved in self-promotional ways: Marvel partnered with a New York marketing and tourism organization to sell T-shirts that benefitted the New York City Police Foundation, while Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg helped purchase body cameras for the LAPD from a vendor that had previously made several donations to the foundation. According to Luscombe, the process of getting access to donor and foundation records for their study “was extremely difficult. . . . We had an extremely hard time accessing data. . . .The bigger the foundation was, the more closed off, the harder it actually was.” 

The continued existence of these foundations is partly indicative of collective resignation, the willingness to turn a blind eye to webs of cronyism, casual familiarity, and technically legal profiteering. But more than that, the model of the police foundation demonstrates how capital is inextricably linked to police agencies: to the murders they’ve carried out, their terrorizing of neighborhoods, and the litany of cruelties committed within the larger carceral system. Monstrousness and brutality within police departments are smoothed over by billionaire-funded community programs, while the procurement of new surveillance technologies and militarized weapons is subsumed into the philanthropic social calendars of the elite.

Foundations operate at the intersection of the elite obsession with profit accrued through social networks and paranoiac notions of safety that endanger the lives of Black people and all over-policed communities. From the 1980s and through to today, fiscally strapped cities and their private sector boosters have sold rehabilitated images of the city to white, middle-class people by guaranteeing their protection. According to a historical analysis by Stuart Schrader, police agencies were able to advance their status “within a matrix of urban competitiveness shaped by racialized fears of crime.” Cities rebranded themselves through parasitic images of diversity and purported vibrancy, and the simultaneous expulsion of an underclass no longer able to afford rent in their own neighborhoods. Some programs undertaken by police foundations seem designed to match the sensibilities of white urbanites. Boston’s foundation, for example, currently partners with BoxLock, a package protection service tailor-made for the home delivery class.

The model of the police foundation is demonstrative of how capital is inextricably linked to police agencies.

While city governments around the United States have largely responded with minor conciliatory measures to growing calls to defund the police, it’s possible that foundations may step in to fill in any gaps that do occur, especially in cases where budget cuts are relatively minor. According to Luscombe, “In the current shift towards scrutinizing police budgets . . . people should start to look at police foundations and realize these are also entities that fund police. . . . They haven’t really entered the conversation.” Walby notes in light of the movement to defund or abolish police, funneling money through foundations “would be the logical, perhaps anticipated,  response of the police apparatus.” The possibility is grim, and demonstrates not only the ineffectual nature of measures to simply reform the institution, but also the distorted and weaponized nature of “public safety” it means to enforce.

There is something dumbfoundingly stupid about the cruelty being meted out now; every day has managed to conjure a new kind of indignity. As police departments deployed tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters, or simply cracked their skulls, the riot gear they wore not purchased by the state—in many cases through protesters’ own tax dollars—was funded by oligarchs at black-tie galas, around whose property and capital investments the police gathered to protect. Such machinations are taken as a given: they are the natural output of a system that no longer needs to be “gamed” for the self-enrichment of the morally repugnant. These chains of causality hang heavily over the violence, shameful and banal at once.

Police foundations exemplify the corkscrew logic of racial capitalism, whereby the wealthy and powerful weaponize their assets and wealth against the Black communities and others that they have excluded and extracted from. Today’s ongoing protests and calls for abolition follow a long lineage of Black liberatory thought; they demand a new world. This new world necessitates not only the abolition of police forces, but the abolition of the entire system that allows Raytheon executives to forge connections and profit from death and trauma in some hotel ballroom, the system that encourages socialites and corporations to qualify their morality by “giving back” some of the wealth they have acquired through plunder and exploitation. The protests not only imagine the possibilities of life without police, but one unmarred by this corporate extraction.