As protesters in Philly and nationwide call to “defund the police,” some have turned their attention to a little-known source of department funding: police foundations. The Philadelphia Police Foundation has received support from mega-employers including universities — though Temple and the University of Pennsylvania recently cut ties. Critics of such foundations say they are an opaque financial funnel to broken departments, while defenders say foundations offer needed support for strained public safety budgets.

To explore this debate, The Inquirer asked members of Philly Power Research and the secretary/treasurer of the Norristown Police Foundation: Should police departments have access to this kind of nonprofit funding?

No: Foundations lack transparency and contribute to a broken policing system.

By Molly Gott and Brittany Alston

The recent nationwide uprising following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has clear demands: defund the police and invest in Black communities. Activists in cities including Los Angeles, New York, and here in Philadelphia have called on local elected officials to cut police departments’ massive public budgets and invest in the education, health, and safety of Black people.

Every year, foundations contribute hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to police departments across the country. In Philadelphia, the local police foundation — whose donors include Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, and Wawa — contributed $500,000 to the department last year, which helped the PPD purchase new SWAT equipment, drones, and anti-bias training.

Using private foundations to fund police is deeply problematic and dangerous. To start, there is almost no transparency or public oversight over police foundations, which do not have to disclose donors, or how they spend their money. In fact, when activists started pressuring corporate donors to police foundations, many police foundations removed the identities of their board members and donors. They have also refused to share lists of donors with journalists, including The Inquirer.

Because there is little oversight over these foundations, they create a loophole whereby police departments can purchase equipment like militarized weaponry and surveillance technology with no opportunities for public input. In Los Angeles, for example, this loophole was used to purchase controversial surveillance software from Palantir with the help of a $200,000 donation from Target — all without public input. The public, especially Black and brown communities targeted by militarized policing and surveillance, deserve a say in how resources are allocated to police.

These backdoor donations also raise serious concerns over conflicts of interests, since some police foundations’ donors and board members — Motorola Solutions and DynTek Inc., for example — also bid for contracts with police departments. The foundations create an environment in which CEOs have special access to police leadership, and therefore special influence over policing priorities.

Police foundations further reinforce a system of “reform” that has completely failed to address the root causes of racist police violence. Anti-bias training, diversity initiatives, and community programming — the types of initiatives police foundations often fund — do not prevent police officers from murdering Black people. A 2016 study found implicit bias training had no lasting impact after a few days. Minneapolis had instituted many police reform “best practices,” but Derek Chauvin was still kept on the police force despite 17 misconduct complaints, and still brutally murdered George Floyd. Over and over again, we see policing does not translate into increased public safety.

“Over and over again, we see policing does not translate into increased public safety.”

Molly Gott and Brittany Alston

Nonetheless, police foundations continue to dump money into an already inflated system. Philadelphia will spend $727 million from its operating budget on the PPD in the upcoming fiscal year, making it the nation’s fourth top-funded police force. But Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, and former Aramark CEO Joseph Neubauer seem to believe the PPD needs even more money. If activists succeed in trimming public police budgets, police foundations are poised to step in with their donations to play a more outsized funding role — again, with little to no accountability.

An integral part of the fight to make Black and brown communities safe and able to thrive is reducing the number of police on the street by defunding the police. This means addressing both the public and private money behind them.

Molly Gott is the director of strategic initiatives at the Public Accountability Initiative. Brittany Alston is a senior research analyst at the Action Center on Race and the Economy. They are both members of Philly Power Research.

Yes: Police foundations are a vital resource to police departments and the communities they serve.

By Rich Clowser

Police foundations are more important than ever amid public outcry for reform and defunding of police agencies. Regardless of agency size, police foundations can provide much-needed support for police departments and the communities they serve — and improve the relationship between the two.

Police department fiscal budgets do not always support the goals and objectives of that department. The benefits of having a police foundation range from supplementing a department’s limited fiscal budget by providing additional training or resources for officers, or supporting the community through donations to local nonprofits or service programs. The Norristown Police Foundation, for example, has given to Expressive Paths of Norristown and Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center as part of their annual campaigns.

When you think of a police department’s budget, what comes to mind? Salaries and equipment, typically consuming the largest portion of a budget, are the obvious needs to maintain operations and the safety of a community. But what about additional training, or the wellness of the dedicated officers of a police department? Is there a line item for that? If there is, is it enough? Is it a focus of the department?

“A police foundation can focus on these important, often overlooked areas that provide for the needs of the agency to best serve its community.”

Capt. Rich Clowser

Depending on police department leadership and policing strategy, along with the governing body of that agency, it may not be a priority or even feasible to provide much-needed training programs or programs that promote officer wellness. A police foundation can focus on these important, often overlooked areas that provide for the needs of the agency to best serve its community.

Community policing involves more than just policing a neighborhood. It is also about having positive interactions and building trust with community members. Working together toward the common goal of what residents want for their community is essential. Where in a police department fiscal budget is the funding to facilitate events promoting continued positive community engagements? Again: that funding may or may not exist. Police foundations provide not only the financial support but also facilitate the request for in-kind donations of items or goods and help break the ice or provide some common ground to get conversations started.

Larger corporations are more willing to provide donations in the form of monetary support, goods, or services to nonprofits for tax purposes. The Norristown Police Foundation has been fortunate that our local businesses and community leaders continue to support our efforts to engage with the Norristown community. Events such as Coffee with a Cop, Water Ice with a Cop, and our Teen and Police Service (TAPS) Academy continue through the foundation’s efforts. Our efforts should also be transparent to everyone, especially those willing to make a donation. For this reason, our nonprofit is required to file annual IRS forms and Pennsylvania Public Disclosure Forms based on our fund-raising activities.

» READ MORE: Philly police spent nearly $18 million in overtime during protests, according to preliminary data

Police foundations support police and the communities they serve where the fiscal budget does not. If you believe in your police agency, the majority of which are filled with hardworking, caring professionals, then you can look to foundations as a way to support them. You can also ask this question of your local police agency: Are they serving the community in a way that is building relationships and garnering support for a safer community? If so, help them continue their efforts.

Events and programs that aid departments with community engagement efforts may be skipped in official budgets. These programs, alongside the support of police foundations to keep them running, are vital to strengthening community and police relations.

Capt. Rich Clowser is the deputy chief of police of the Norristown Police Department and the secretary/treasurer of the Norristown Police Foundation.

Read more Inquirer Pro/Cons: