from the getting-the-goods-without-all-the-hassle dept
A law enforcement agency looking to dodge oversight has a few options. First, there’s the 1033 program, which allows agencies to pick up useful things like guns, bullets, armored vehicles, grenade launchers… and… um… filing cabinets, I guess. Going this route means spending federal money rather than local money. So, if you’re not spending local tax dollars, you really don’t need to ask permission.
Another accountability dodge is the discretionary spending allowed by civil asset forfeiture. Law enforcement agencies directly profit from property seized and are given a lot of latitude on spending those dollars. City/county oversight is rarely involved. Very few localities have implemented strict reporting on seizures so the money flows from victims through cop shops and into the hands of cop tech purveyors.
There’s a third option: use private money. Donors with deep pockets and minimal concerns about the people they’re bypassing pay for surveillance tech and other law enforcement goodies. Again, because no public money is involved, the public is left out of the equation. This happened in Baltimore, where a Texas philanthropist purchased an aerial surveillance system capable of covering the entire city. No one was told about it until after it went up in the air.
The same thing is happening elsewhere. Lots of private companies and individuals are buying stuff for police departments, allowing them to circumvent accountability measures. Some of these “private” concerns should be considered public, considering their narrow focus. As ProPublica reported in 2014, the Los Angeles Police Foundation — a “private” charity — asked for $200,000 from Target Corp. to buy the Los Angeles Police Department data analytics software from Palantir. It also purchased several automatic license plate readers for the department. No public oversight was involved since it was “private” money.
Joseph Cox reports on more of this public/private bullshit for Motherboard. Another “private” charity — the San Diego Police Foundation — has gifted local cops with a high tech phone cracking tool.
“The GrayKey was purchased by the Police Foundation and donated to the lab,” an official from the San Diego Police Department’s Crime Laboratory wrote in a 2018 email to a contracting officer, referring to the iPhone unlocking technology GrayKey.
Grayshift’s flagship product generates a pretty strong revenue stream. The following year the Police Foundation helped the SDPD reup its license… which costs exactly as much as the original buy-in.
“This is the phone unlocking technique that the Police Foundation purchased for us (for 15k). Apparently the software ‘upgrade’ costs the same as the initial purchase each year. :/ They are the only ones that offer a tool that can crack iPhones, so they charge A LOT!,” the email reads.
No one’s arguing police departments shouldn’t have access to tools like these. But if they’re using these to perform their public duties, they owe it to the public to inform them about their acquisitions and allow their oversight to do its job. Forming a bunch of “private charities” specifically to provide police departments with off-the-books tech is a spectacularly lousy way to engage in public service.
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