A secretive group of powerful New Yorkers that funnels millions of anonymous dollars to the NYPD each year may soon become a bit less secretive.
Every year, the biggest check to the NYPD always comes from the same place: the New York City Police Foundation, a non-profit supported by corporate leaders whose identities are shielded from public view.
But a new City Council bill would require the department to spell out in detail how it’s spending all of the money it receives from outside donors — and that includes the Police Foundation.
For years, the NYPD has resisted calls to bring the foundation’s work into view, leaving only occasional clues to its projects, from high-tech bulletproof vests to virtual reality experiences aimed at winning over kids.
But now the NYPD supports the new disclosure proposal, an official signaled at a City Council hearing Monday where the department forcefully objected to several other police reform bills, including a measure that would require the NYPD to document the race or ethnicity of civilians questioned by police during car stops.
The foundation has long been criticized as a kind of slush fund utilized by police headquarters to fund sometimes controversial initiatives. The department only has to say what it receives in private contributions, but unlike with budgeted government dollars it is not required to disclose how it spends what it receives from that group or any other private source.
And it receives almost all of its private funding from the Police Foundation. Since 2019, for instance, the department has accepted $30 million in private donations — $26.8 million of that from the Police Foundation, according to city Conflict of Interest Board records.
The way the department uses this money has for years remained a mystery, and that remains so despite a chorus of critics that have long demanded more transparency about spending over which the mayor and the City Council have no control.
On Monday, the dynamic changed.
During a Council hearing on several bills aimed at increasing public disclosure by the NYPD, Michael Clarke, the NYPD’s director of legislative affairs, repeatedly stated the department’s opposition to nearly every proposal, including more reporting on the racial demographics of car stops and interactions with cops investigating specific crimes.
But on the private donation disclosure bill, Clarke revealed, “The department looks forward to working with the Council on this legislation.”
“It is imperative that the public knows who and where the money is coming from and where it’s being spent,” said Councilmember Althea Stevens (D-The Bronx), the bill’s sponsor. “There will no longer be a blind spot.”
Williams pointed out how multiple city agencies are now struggling with budget cuts under Mayor Eric Adams’ push to trim costs, but the NYPD — with its $11 billion annual budget — continues to benefit from this consistent source of unmonitored money.
“How do we have every other city agency fighting for money and we have this agency with one of the highest amounts of money in its budget that is able to have outside money and can do what it wants to do with it?” she asked.
‘Essentially Laundering This Money’
The Police Foundation was formed by civic leaders in 1971 as the city struggled with a calamitous fiscal crisis that triggered dangerous cuts to governmental services, including police. The nascent organization started out buying bullet-proof vests the department couldn’t afford and horses for the NYPD’s fabled mounted unit.
As the years passed, the group’s role expanded, taking over the CrimeStoppers program to dole out rewards to tipsters, buying body-worn cameras for officers and providing the first computers used in the data-driven CompStat program begun in the 1990s to analyze criminal statistics and better thwart crime at the precinct level.
In some cases, the foundation has been candid about its spending. Since 2019, it has spent $1.3 million on lightweight bullet-proof vests following the death of Detective Brian Simonsen, shot during an armed robbery by a fellow officer while responding to an armed robbery. Simonsen was not wearing a vest.
But obtaining a full picture of how all of the foundation’s money is spent has been infuriatingly difficult. Critics of the department, for instance, believe some foundation money has paid for controversial surveillance technology, including technology that captures and stores millions of shots of license plates across the city.
Foundation documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service are notably vague. Its 2019 filing describes funding that “provides equipment, expertise, training and technical services to upgrade the NYPD’s technological capabilities,” including “installing cutting-edge software and upgrading database security and infrastructure.”
“The big concern is the police department is essentially laundering this money to buy surveillance technology that the City Council would never approve,” said Christopher Dunn, legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The obvious concern is the Police Foundation is driving public policy with no public accountability.”
Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, called the foundation “a black box, and it’s really infuriating that the public and even lawmakers have less information about how this money is being spent than the corporations who donate.”
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the foundation began providing the NYPD with annual payments to station detectives overseas as part of a counter-terrorism effort.
Each year the foundation allocated a specific amount for this “international liaison” program. In 2012, it funneled $1 million for this purpose to the department’s intelligence division. That same year, the Police Foundation received the same amount — $1 million — from the embassy of the United Arab Emirates, as revealed by The Intercept.
IRS forms for 2019 reviewed by THE CITY show a $1.3 million donation from the United Arab Emirates to the Police Foundation. Those same forms show the Police Foundation donated $1.2 million to the Intelligence Division for the overseas detective program.
More recently, the group spent $992,000 to hire a Long Island tech firm, Little Star Media, according to its 2019 filing. The forms only state the money paid for “VR technology,” but Little Star Media’s website reveals it pays for a program aimed at improving police-community relations.
The program targets city middle-school and high-school students and “emphasizes de-escalation” via “virtual reality-based scenarios designed to simulate real-life encounters” with the police.
Under this initiative, the Police Foundation has “trained over 350 officers and 3,740 students using these Virtual Reality experiences on subjects that include gangs, hate crimes, cyberbullying, and domestic violence,” according to Little Star’s website.
Zach Goldberg, a spokesperson for the Police Foundation, said the group is taking no position on the Council bill that would require public disclosure of how private funds are spent by the NYPD.
Goldberg noted the foundation’s publicized causes, such as body-worn cameras and bulletproof vests, but also pointed to newer criminal justice reform efforts, including the virtual reality youth initiative and training “first responders in intervening when necessary to prevent their colleagues from causing harm.”
Another foundation expense reported in the 2019 IRS forms that’s less clear is $332,675 paid to MTX Group of Texas for “pilot technology development.” MTX’s website describes it as a corporate consultant firm that works with technology companies.
MTX is also listed as a sponsor of the Police Foundation’s 2019 fundraising gala, along with a glittering list of New York City heavy hitters from finance and real estate.
City lobbyist records show that several of the foundation’s supporters — including Silverstein Properties, SL Green Realty and Steven Roth (head of the Vornado Realty group) — last year hired lobbyists to press New York police officials, including Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell, and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Phil Banks, for various causes.
One sponsor of the foundation’s 2017 gala was Ralph Clark, CEO of ShotSpotter Technology, a firm that has sold equipment that monitors and reports on the sound of gunshots to multiple police departments nationwide, including New York’s. Since 2014 the NYPD has spent $38.1 million on contracts with ShotSpotter. Former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton sits on the company’s board of directors.
“We can’t have a system where people who want to buy goodwill with the police department and even get business with the police department are allowed to secretly channel money to the police department,” said Dunn of the NYCLU. “But that’s exactly the situation we have now.”
As for the NYPD’s sudden embrace of public disclosure, THE CITY asked for an itemized breakdown of how the department has spent the $26.8 million it’s received since 2019 from the Police Foundation.
The department’s public affairs office on Tuesday instructed THE CITY to file a Freedom of Information Law request for the information.