Protesters gather in New York on March 9 to rally against a proposed training facility for Atlanta's police and fire departments.
CNN  — 

Earlier this month, nearly two dozen people were arrested after demonstrations against a police and fire training center near Atlanta that opponents have dubbed “Cop City.” But while critics of the facility say it will harm the environment and propagate police militarization, the controversy has seeped into the foundation behind it.

The project is largely funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation, a multimillion-dollar nonprofit that supports the Atlanta Police Department. The foundation is one of at least 150 like it across the US that CNN reviewed that say they fill crucial budget gaps, not dissimilar to a nonprofit supporting a library or public school.

“Our role in Atlanta is to help provide, to develop new programs which can ultimately reduce crime,” said Rob Baskin, the Atlanta Police Foundation’s vice president and director of public affairs.

Critics argue these nonprofits — many of which were launched after the wave of protests when a Black 18-year-old was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in in 2014 — are unaccountable to the public and create channels for corporate influence in law enforcement.

The backlash over the new training facility is raising public debate over how involved private philanthropy should be in policing, according to Seth Stoughton, a professor of law and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina.

“Police foundations don’t have democratic accountability the way that a police agency does,” Stoughton said.

Hundreds of these law enforcement foundations — like Atlanta’s, which was founded in 2003 — have sprung up across the country in the last two decades to support departments with extra money and equipment, according to a study co-authored by Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg. Some are no longer active.

These types of foundations have existed since at least the 1970s, but most sprung up starting in the early 2000s. Walby’s study notes that nearly 40 percent of the organizations it studied in the US were founded in the two years after the 2014 demonstrations over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

How Atlanta Police Foundation led police foundations in revenue

Many of these foundations supporting major cities raise annual revenue in the millions, but since 2014, Atlanta Police Foundation’s revenue has grown to make the nonprofit an outlier. It raised at least $28 million in revenue in 2021, the highest revenue among more than 150 other police foundations for which CNN reviewed Internal Revenue Service data. That figure is approximately 15 times what the foundation raised a decade earlier.

About $16 million of the foundation’s 2021 revenue was designated for projects that qualify for a tax credit to develop low-income neighborhoods, Baskin wrote in an email to CNN.

Among the more than 150 foundations whose IRS data CNN reviewed, the foundation supporting police in Las Vegas, which has a slightly larger population than Atlanta, raised the second-largest amount, with over $12 million. Omaha’s police foundation, where the police department serves a population similar in size to Atlanta’s, raised just under $1.7 million in revenue in 2021, by comparison, among the highest revenues of any police foundation CNN reviewed.

Police departments spend most of their budget on personnel, said Tom Kovach, executive director of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Foundation. Private foundations —such as Atlanta’s — offer opportunities to fund new technologies or programs that don’t get included in government budgets, Kovach said.

But while police foundations can help departments overcome budget constraints, “There are political constraints, not just resource constraints,” said Stoughton. He says that the foundations can sometimes “provide an end run” around those political constraints, purchasing more controversial items like surveillance technology or training that the public doesn’t support.

The foundation disagrees. “What we offer to the department is determined by what the department says it needs,” Baskin told CNN.

The foundation in Atlanta only funds programs that the mayor or police department have approved, typically for a pilot period, Baskin said in his email.

The Atlanta foundation’s annual revenue has grown substantially since 2014, with particular increases from campaigns supporting a youth diversion program, surveillance technology, and an initiative to develop housing for officers to live in the communities they police, Baskin added.

Such campaigns are often supported by corporations based in Atlanta.

“It makes sense that businesses would want to have a role in an organization that cares about public safety. I don’t see anything wrong with companies investing in their communities and donating to a nonprofit,” said Farhang Heydari, a law professor and researcher at New York University. “The part that becomes a little problem with police foundations is when police departments use them as an end run around democratic governments. You would have to go through a normal budget process to buy a bunch of surveillance cameras and put them up around the city.”

The surveillance cameras that the Atlanta Police Foundation has installed through its Operation Shield program are only in neighborhoods that want them, Baskin said. He also noted that the foundation does not purchase weapons or ammunition for the police department.

But it’s the funding for the training facility that is drawing attention these days.

About two-thirds of the so-called “Cop City” training facility’s projected $90 million price tag will be covered by the police foundation, according to Bryan Thomas, the director of communications for Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens. The project was announced by then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in spring 2021 and the city council approved an agreement to lease the land designated for the facility to the Atlanta Police Foundation in September 2021. In June 2021, protesters allegedly vandalized the foundation’s office.

The Las Vegas’ foundation has also been fundraising for a new training center, Kovach told CNN.

These campaigns to increase funding for police foundations have come as racial justice groups call to reduce police spending. Critics question corporations’ motivations for contributing to these funds, while some simultaneously publicly espouse support for Black Lives Matter and other movements that demand reform.

“That these police departments can go to these corporations and get things that that our elected officials haven’t given to them…this is a dangerous cocktail,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a racial justice group that released a 2021 report that was critical of the foundations.

“What shareholder would be comfortable with corporations moving money if it didn’t have something to do with influence?” Robinson added.

Atlanta Police Foundation President and CEO Dave Wilkinson surveys the damage from protests at the site of the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Facility in Atlanta on March 6.

In response to such criticism, Darin Schierbaum, chief of the Atlanta Police Department, told CNN that corporations involved with the police foundation do not craft policy for the police department: “I have a dedicated and talented group of executive commanders that do,” he said.

“That criticism is inaccurate,” Baskin said. “I think it’s incorrect, and I think it misstates and shows frankly a misunderstanding of what we do.”

He added, “The business and philanthropic community in Atlanta is extraordinarily generous and very eager to enhance public safety.”

The presence of corporate leadership on foundation boards is common among philanthropic nonprofits, where such leaders offer the gifts of “time, talent and treasure,” Kovach said. He suggests that it’s useful for these foundations to have both the expertise and the financial resources associated with these corporations.

Stoughton, the University of South Carolina professor, believes the emphasis is on the offering of “treasure.”

“The reason that they’re pulling people from big corporations is because the people in big corporations have big checkbooks,” he said.

Police departments aren’t the only public agencies that rely on private philanthropy. Libraries, schools, fire departments, universities, and other public entities have dedicated foundations to support their mission. But the issue of private philanthropy funding public agencies is “sharper” around policing, Stoughton says, given recent controversy over policing and racial justice.

“Policing is much more at the tip of the pendulum of public opinion,” Stoughton said.

Methodology: To find the highest revenue among police foundations, CNN reviewed the Internal Revenue Service’s business master file for any organizations that described themselves as police, or public safety foundations, or “friends” of law enforcement. This analysis excluded organizations that described themselves as “fraternal order,” or public safety foundations that were found to only support non-law-enforcement first responders, such as fire departments. CNN also reviewed any exempt organizations in the business master file that filed at the same address and appeared to be law-enforcement related, to see if any of those reflected additional sources of revenue for the same police foundation, as APF Support Inc. does for the Atlanta Police Foundation.

In reviewing Atlanta Police Foundation’s annual revenue, CNN reviewed 990 filings from ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer. If there were differences between one year’s filing and the “prior year” revenue in the preceding year’s filing, the year reflects the most recent figure.