Jordan: I’m going to lay out a scenario for you in which the defund the police movement is completely successful, and also doesn’t change a thing. Here’s how it would go. Let’s imagine that your city’s government listen for the voices of activists and advocates, community members, and others, who are crying for less of their tax dollars to go towards a police force that too often harms people that it’s supposed to protect. Let’s pretend that they put all the power of city council behind that movement, and they slash the police budget by let’s say 85%. No more money for armored vehicles. No more money for helicopters or military style equipment. Just money for the salaries of the officer’s doing on-the-ground work in the communities in which they live. That’s it. And imagine that passes, and then six months later, you see a SWAT team rolling into a neighbourhood in a brand new tank looking thing, hopping out with night-vision binoculars and fancy drones to surveil the neighborhood from above. And you stop and you do a double take and you think where the heck did they get the money for that? I thought we defunded the police. Well, your city might very well have defunded the police department. But that’s not the only place the police can turn for money. And under the current rules, there’s actually not a thing your city can do about that. Sorry. How does that work? Well, that’s a natural question and we’ll tell you. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Martin Lukacs is a journalist and author who looked into these police foundations for the Tyee. Hello Martin.
Martin: How are you doing?
Jordan: I’m doing well, thanks. Yourself?
Martin: Pretty good.
Jordan: Can you start by telling me where the Vancouver police got money to buy a patrol boat and night vision binoculars and a whole bunch of drones?
Martin: Good question. It turns out it was the Vancouver police foundation, which is one of several foundations across Canada, these little scrutinized, but increasingly common way for police to get even more funding than they already get. But this time from private, rather than public sources. So, I mean if we’re honest about their purpose, foundations are these essentially like shell companies that police use to launder corporate money.
Jordan: See that’s an inflammatory way to put it.
Martin: I mean, it’s said in a more restrained way on the Vancouver police foundation website, where they quote a former top cop of Vancouver, Jim Chu saying when the public needs help, they call the police. When the Vancouver Police needs help, they call the Vancouver Police Foundation.
Jordan: What is it exactly? Is it like a registered charity? A lobby group? Who gives to it? Like, explain it a little more if you can.
Martin: Yeah. So, foundations are private charities created by police, often with support from political allies and municipal government. And they essentially allow police to funnel corporate money into their operations without really any scrutiny. And you know, if you go on the website of most foundations, say for instance, the Vancouver Police Foundation, you’ll see, you know, adorable photos of police horses, cops high fiving kids on a playground, and other kind of cuddly and warm images of police, you know, serving community members. But as charities, they’re exploiting this loophole whereby they are essentially exempt from any disclosure laws that public institutions are subject to. So you really have to dig deeper to see where their funding actually goes. And a large portion of their funding does go to kind of community initiatives that burnish the credibility of police. But a major chunk of their funding also goes towards buying equipment for SWAT teams, armed vehicles, helicopters, surveillance tech, all kinds of, you know, extra police goodies that police want, because their appetite for funding frankly, is just insatiable.
Jordan: How do you go about trying to figure out whose money it is these foundations are giving away? Is that easy to find? And what did you find?
Martin: Well, in some cases they do advertise their sponsors on their website. We don’t often know just how much they give, but for instance, the Vancouver Police Foundation receives funding we know from their website, from major gas companies like LNG Canada, banks like RBC, several real estate companies, legal firms, phone companies. But because they’re charities, it’s hard to dig in to their funding without, for instance, trying to pour through Canadian Revenue Agency documents, which is one thing we did, and also looking through their past press releases, where they often reveal things, like say, the Calgary Police Foundation at its inception was given several million dollars by a number of the largest Canadian oil companies. And, you know, they have at their headquarters a hallway of plaques, you know, to their major corporate donors, these oil companies. When you ask them, they’re often very, very reluctant to either speak to the media or give us any kind of information. So for instance, like when I spoke to the Calgary Police Foundation, they would not tell me what their current corporate sponsors give. They said, you know, that’s probably– it wouldn’t be appropriate. We’d have to ask the corporations. Of course, you know, if this is going to fund police activities, you’d think the public would be interested and have the right to know these things, but police foundations allow them to skirt that.
Jordan: Where did that model come from?
Martin: It was actually invented by the New York Police Department in the seventies. And then they kind of slowly exported it across the continent. In fact, there’s even a manual that they wrote, it’s kind of like a 101 to creating a police foundation, which they have been sharing across the country through like workshops as well. And if you look at the manual, it actually explicates the PR strategy of police foundations is to make them seem like they’re these warm and fuzzy organizations, when in fact they’re just vehicles for accessing even more funding for the police.
Jordan: How come more people don’t know that this model exists, you know, with the conversation we’re having now about defunding the police, and what our money is spent on by the police department, I’m surprised that this model has come up outside of the piece I saw.
Martin: No, I think you’re right. I think, you know, people to some degree have been rightly focused on public spending. Which in, in Canada, for the police is unjustifiably and egregiously huge. I think it’s $15 billion a year that go to police funding in this country publicly. And I just think it’s in part because there’s a whole lot more scrutiny now being paid to the police and their operations than we’ve ever seen. And so people are starting to look at this aspect. And I mean, one expert I spoke to who’s probably the leading academic expert on police foundations, what he told me is that he thinks that these police foundations will be even more relied on if the public funding for police is diminished, because of the defund, the police movement. So we might see police turning to police foundations and saying, look like, you know, we’ve gotten our public funding clawed back. It’s time to open up the corporate wallets to make up for what we’re losing.
Jordan: And do these organizations, these foundations, how much control do they have over how that money is spent? You know, if they wanted to make sure it gets spent on drones instead of an armoured car or instead of a community picnic, they can stipulate that?
Martin: It’s hard to say, because we don’t really have access to their decision making processes. My somewhat informed guess is that that kind of decision making happens in conversation with police. So, I mean, often police representatives will sit on these boards, or put allies, close political allies of the police. And so there’s a great deal of kind of synchronicity between them. So my guess is that those decisions are made together. And often police foundations will try to pretend that there’s a great deal, more space between them. But for instance, like when I spoke to this Calgary Police Foundation person, she told me that, you know, there’s no direct relationship between the two. I was like, but what about the fact that you guys literally share the same email address, @calgarypolice.ca? So, that’s my guess. But ultimately, like one of the issues with these foundations is that we don’t know how these decisions are made. We don’t know how the priorities are being decided. And my sense is that there’s an obvious tit for tat expectation when, you know, corporations are giving money. I think they assume that they will be getting something in return.
Jordan: And how much control over any of this does, I was going to say the municipal government, but really any level of government, have? You know, Can they stop the police from buying more armoured trucks if they think, like, you know, you guys actually have enough, we don’t want that to be a part of your police work? Like, I’m just trying to understand where there’s oversight and where there isn’t.
Martin: No, there’s absolutely no oversight. And so a city wouldn’t be able to do anything if they felt that some kind of unjustifiable purchase was being made. And that’s one of the problems inherent to both private funding of the police, and private funding that’s being laundered through these charitable foundations. And I think it raises all kinds of questions about who should police be beholden to, right? Like private interests that fund them? Or the public?
Jordan: Yeah, well then, this is obviously somewhat of an exaggerated scenario, but based on the last couple of answers you gave me, I’m a multimillionaire and I say to the police foundation, I want to give you guys a million dollars so that you can give it to the police to buy one of those tank-like SWAT vehicles, but I only want to give it to them if they will use it to patrol my neighbourhood.
Martin: I don’t think that’s farfetched. I mean, we have seen, for instance, in New Brunswick members of the Irving family, who basically run Atlantic Canada, donating SWAT-style, armoured vehicles to the New Brunswick police. And just last week, we found out that the Bruce Power Generating Plant in Peterborough gave an armoured vehicle to the Peterborough police. I mean, the expectation is yes, they will be likely extra keen to police and protect their interests. And I think that’s the danger, the deep danger in this kind of direct funding that police can get from corporations. I mean, ultimately foundations, I think, just lay back where the real purpose of police, which is to protect power, and property, and privilege. Right. But I think foundations entrenched and institutionalize this reality in a way that citizens have absolutely no say and control over. And frankly, they should probably be prohibited, through legislation.
Jordan: Well, that was going to be my next question, are there any advocates pushing against this? You know, again, I mentioned that I had just found out about this. It seems to a lay person like it should be a bigger deal. Is anybody trying to make it one?
Martin: Not that I know of yet. I don’t know if there’s any active campaigns to shut down police foundations, but there was an interesting moment, a few years ago in 2016, when in Saskatchewan the police in Saskatoon tried to create a foundation, a police foundation. And what happened is the police commission chair, you know, probably no radical, thought that that was inappropriate. And he actually prohibited police from receiving private money. And he cited the need to avoid the perception that special treatment can be bought by private funders. You know, and this is a police commission chair. So, my sense is is that if more people knew about this, they would be a hundred percent onside. And in that case, I think he probably just used some kind of bylaw, or even internal police commission ruling or regulation. So it doesn’t seem a stretch of the imagination to see provinces and municipalities passing legislation to ban this practice entirely.
Jordan: So if they wanted to, that’s what would happen. The BC government or the Ontario government, or whomever would pass a law, making it illegal for police to take any private money and it would end there.
Martin: I think that’s all it would take. Yeah, my sense is is that if this becomes more of an issue, and if police do in fact start using these foundations as a fallback strategy to make up for any potential budget cuts because of the defund the police movement, I think that we will be scrutinizing police foundations even more in the future.
Jordan: And in the meantime, are they proliferating?
Martin: My understanding is that there was one that was created in Halifax recently. Saskatoon interestingly still ended up creating a police foundation, but because of the ruling from the police commission chair, they can’t yet receive money. I know that Winnipeg has been, you know, where already they’re the top in the country for the amount of money that the police department gets, I think they got 25% of the city’s annual budget, but even they’re still pushing for a police foundation as well. So yeah, they are spreading across the country slowly but surely.
Jordan: And we’ll see what happens when more people, like myself, learn that they exist. Thanks for shedding a little light on this Martin.
Martin: Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Author and journalist Martin Lukacs. That was The Big Story, for more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter at @thebig storyFPN. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course, we are in whatever podcast you prefer, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify. Doesn’t matter. We’re there. Leave us a rating. Leave us a review. Subscribe for free. Tell your friends all that good stuff. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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