The less the public knows about law enforcement surveillance technology, the better. That’s the thought process governing the purchase and deployment of technology like Stingray devices and automatic license plate readers. In the case of the former, even the nation’s top cops (the FBI)actively discourage talking about the cell tower spoofers through the use of restrictive non-disclosure agreements.
Being public entities, it’s sometimes hard to keep the public and local law enforcement’s new tools and toys separated. FOIA requests and a whole lot of persistence have managed to uncover details about surveillance tech, but what’s turned over is often heavily-redacted or several months out of date. The purchasing process should run through local governing bodies, but many of those are only too happy to defer to law enforcement and rubber-stamp purchases sight unseen or keep discussions of purchases off the public records.
If the normal routes — as deferential as they are — seem to be a bit too “leaky,” many law enforcement agencies have a third option available to keep the public in the dark about their technology acquisitions: private funding.
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.
These private foundations have been useful in the past, supplying cops with needed equipment like bulletproof vests and office equipment during times of budget shortfalls. Unfortunately, they’ve now stretched far beyond funding to fill in budgetary gaps to become the checkbook of choice when purchasing controversial surveillance technology.
Not only do these foundations help law enforcement sidestep public accountability, but they also serve as convenient recipients of private contractors’ largesse. The LAPD avoided creating a paper trail when Palantir and Target Corp. teamed up to donate the former’s surveillance software to the department through the Los Angeles Police Foundation.
These foundations are also used a lobbying proxy. Contractors hoping to receive city contracts grease the wheels by donating funds or products to the private foundations, again skirting accountability by taking advantage of looser disclosure requirements.
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.
Defenders of these accountability-skirting foundations portray them as nothing more than more efficient ways to get police departments the tools they need.
“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.”
And, hilariously, they portray the generous donations by private contractors (with eyes on securing city contracts) as nothing more than pure, unstoppable acts of charity.
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.
Some of this “insatiable appetite to help” more closely resembles straight-up lobbying combined with the infamous governmental “revolving door.” Motorola, vying for a $600 million city contract, donated more than $164,000 to the Los Angeles Police Foundation and placed former chief Bill Bratton (now New York City’s police commissioner) on its board of directors, a position that paid $240,000 a year. Motorola ended up with the contract, despite a good showing by its main competitor Raytheon, which dumped $311,000 into the foundation over the same period.
The problems here are numerous. These foundations allow police departments to acquire controversial surveillance technology with very little transparency. There appears to be no oversight on the spending — something that is to be expected when a public entity decides to start making purchases using private funds. As the ProPublica article points out, there will be more of this in the future. What used to be something only available to the nation’s two largest police forces (NYPD, LAPD) is becoming more common elsewhere. Foundations like these are popping up around the country and are being used similarly. One foundation in Atlanta, Georgia paid for the citywide network of surveillance cameras as well as the communication center where these feeds were viewed.
There’s likely no simple fix to this problem or at least, not one that won’t do considerable collateral damage. The default mode should be that if a public entity is spending money, it needs to be accountable for the expenditures, no matter where the funds originated. Even if city officials can’t prevent the purchase of items with private funds, they should be able to force the creation of a paper trail that can be accessed by the public.
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