How The Fossil Fuel Industry Funds The Police

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Above photo: Police use tear gas amid anti-racist protests in Seattle on May 30. Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images.

Critics say there’s a quid pro quo at work when oil giants, utilities and their banks donate to secretive foundations that support police.

Black Americans are one and a half times more likely than white Americans to breathe air polluted by burning fossil fuels, three times more likely to die from the lung and heart diseases that such pollutants cause, and six times more likely to be killed by police.

Those figures have more in common than just the victims.

Oil and gas companies, fossil fuel-burning utilities and the banks that fund drilling donate heavily to police departments’ charity foundations, according to a new report published Monday by the anti-corruption watchdog Public Accountability Initiative and the nonprofit research database LittleSis. That money in many cases directly supports the purchase of weapons and gear.

Oil majors Chevron Corporation and Royal Dutch Shell lavish thousands of dollars in donations on police in Houston and New Orleans each year. Marathon Petroleum, the biggest refinery owner in the U.S., is a notable sponsor of the Detroit Public Safety Foundation’s fundraising events, and the company’s top security official sits on the foundation’s board. Utility giant Exelon backs police foundations in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C. JPMorgan Chase, the world’s largest financier of fossil fuels, has given millions to police foundations in New York City and New Orleans. In 2018 alone, Goldman Sachs, the world’s 14th-biggest financial backer of fossil fuel, gave $250,000 to the Los Angeles Police Foundation and $15,000 to the New York City Police Foundation’s annual gala.

“The same oil and gas companies, utilities and financiers that are polluting Black and brown communities in pursuit of profit are also funding and making alliances with the police,” said Derek Seidman, a LittleSis researcher and report co-author. “They’re allying and equipping the very apparatus that’s ensuring their uninterrupted profits.”

Private police foundations emerged in the 1970s to supplement funding for big-city forces amid the budget crises stemming from manufacturing decline and white middle-class taxpayers fleeing to the suburbs. Today police departments typically receive 20% to 45% of their city’s discretionary budget. Yet foundations continue as lucrative slush funds for police departments, with little oversight on how the money is spent or which corporate entities donate.

That secrecy makes it difficult to know which oil, gas and related financial companies gave, how much they gave or how many police foundations received money from the industry. The new report is based on tidbits of information disclosed in companies’ annual charitable giving reports, tax forms and press releases as well as police foundation materials that list sponsors.

“It’s almost impossible to tell because of the lack of oversight around this,” Seidman said.

It’s also hard to tell how long these companies have contributed to police foundations.

In an email, a Chevron spokeswoman said the company gave $5,000 to the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, “representing less than 1 percent of the local business unit’s social investment budget” for 2019.

“Over the last three years, Chevron has invested over $21.4 million with Houston-area nonprofits focused on education, food and housing security and innovation. Investments of nearly $500,000 have gone to first responders, including the Houston Police Foundation,” Veronica Flores-Paniagua also said in the email. “We review our sponsorships and social investments annually to ensure our commitments are appropriately serving our communities.”

Exelon said “a fraction” of the $52 million it donated to nonprofits last year “went to police departments through small, safety-focused grants for things such as crash investigations, emergency scene safety improvements, K-9 search and rescue operations, and other programs.” Goldman Sachs said its donations were through a fund managed on behalf of clients and did not come from the firm itself.

JPMorgan said it was looking into HuffPost’s questions about donations. The other companies did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Historically, corporate donations to police foundations were “packaged as ‘we’re giving back to the community,’” Heidi Boghosian, an attorney and civil liberties advocate, previously told HuffPost. Her 2013 book, “Spying on Democracy,” examined how private funding helps expand the reach of law enforcement.

But security at fossil fuel sites in the U.S. has become increasingly militarized following the 2016 protests to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under a sacred Indigenous water source on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The monthslong standoff, during which security forces brutalized demonstrators, spurred a wave of industry-backed legislation adding new criminal penalties for protesting at industrial sites. Lawmakers in at least five states have approved new such measures since March of this year.

The fact that these companies have continued to donate to police foundations seven years after the Black Lives Matter movement began exposing racist police violence as widespread “feels more intentional and ideological than accidental or innocent,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“The degree to which any corporation wants the police to be responsive to them obviously is a vested interest,” Muhammad said. “‘Will the police be there for us when they show up at our company gates?’ is implied in that relationship. That’s implied in the pattern.”

What this report shows is a strong alignment of big capital and police departments that, in urban settings, is very much at loggerheads with the communities they serve.Javier Morillo, former president of SEIU Local 26 in the Minneapolis area

Historically, in the American South, police forces grew out of the gangs that hunted down enslaved Black people who’d escaped captivity. But modern policing took shape in 19th-century Northern cities as security battalions were formed to break up labor strikes at factories and keep order when immigrant and poor communities grew restive.

“It was to police dissent, it was to police protest, it was to police the imperatives of the wealthy,” Muhammad said. Industry support for private police foundations in the 21st century, he added, is “a remarkable echo with regard to the reliance on policing of one kind or another to protect corporate interests when it comes to how they make their money.”

The role of police unions, too, has received growing scrutiny since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited a national uprising against racism and police violence earlier this summer. In June, the largest labor group in the Seattle area expelled the city’s police union from its ranks and the president of the 2-million-member Service Employees International Union said such a move “has to be considered” on the national level. The council of the Writers Guild of America, East, voted unanimously last month to call on the nation’s largest labor federation to disaffiliate from police unions. (HuffPost’s newsroom is unionized through the Writers Guild, but its union committee did not take a formal position on the resolution.) 

Police unions and foundations function similarly, as auxiliary entities that bolster police forces but operate outside the restrictions and accountability of a government agency, and they often coordinate efforts. But the foundations’ corporate-backed slush funds boost police power in a way “that’s really quite distinct from what a labor union does,” said Javier Morillo, the former president of SEIU Local 26, a 6,000-member union for property service workers in the Minneapolis area.

“Big corporations are not generally dying to give janitors money other than what they’re paying in wages and benefits,” Morillo said. “What this report shows is a strong alignment of big capital and police departments that, in urban settings, is very much at loggerheads with the communities they serve.”

This story was updated with comments from Chevron and Goldman Sachs.