How Covid-19 Cash Is Militarizing Cops Across the Country - Rolling Stone
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Blue Bailout: Covid-19 Cash Is Militarizing Cops Across the Country

How police departments are using pandemic funds to bulk up their high-tech arsenals

Police in riot gear deploy tear gas and pepper spray against protesters inside the Wake County Public Safety Center parking deck, Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Raleigh, N.C., as people nationwide protested the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

Police in North Carolina, where the state's public safety department got a $15 million grant.

Travis Long/The News & Observer/AP

Heat-seeking cameras that see you in the dark, sometimes even through walls. Firepower and vehicles for “dealing with crowd management security and potential civil disturbances.” “Specialized crime scene mapping technology,” encrypted radios, and data-collection software for “gathering intelligence and enhancing surveillance.” Using federal funds earmarked for Covid-19 relief, these and hundreds of other requests to militarize police forces have been green-lit on the U.S. taxpayer’s dime, according to government disclosures reviewed by Rolling Stone

Using stimulus from the multi-trillion-dollar CARES Act, which passed in March 2020, the Department of Justice has awarded at least $845.8 million of emergency grants to state and local law enforcement officers across the U.S. and its colonized territories. The relief has gone to more than 1,800 of these agencies, ranging from $30,000 boosters for small-town cops to tens of millions of dollars for a single police department in states like Florida and Texas. In legally required public spending reports, some of these agencies have since followed up with details on how they’re using the grant money. And though a chunk of those reported expenses cover basics like PPE, much of it subsidizes militarization, surveillance, and tech that would be funded with or without a pandemic, from encrypted radios to body cameras to a range of communications upgrades.

How has so much money, which was meant to help people weather a pandemic, been redirected to America’s ever-expanding police state?

Police departments are good at getting federal resources — they have divisions specifically dedicated to it, separate from patrol officers or detectives — and more than a year into Covid-19, many are tapping into pandemic funding for uses that have little to do with public health. While some police grant-writers are upfront in public disclosures about the purpose of their money, others offer cryptic or misleading turns-of-phrase — like citing a need to scan body temperatures as justification for a military-grade night vision camera.

“They’re masking it by saying it’s for coronavirus,” says Wayne McElrath, a former director of forensic investigations for the Government Accountability Office and current senior investigative adviser at the Project On Government Oversight, which lobbies for government transparency. “Law enforcement has been known to utilize that type of equipment, or equipment in general – they got it for one purpose, then all of a sudden, they’re using it to basically infringe upon the rights of normal Americans living their lives.”

Easy money

Coronavirus cash is buying a wide array of police tech from state to state, but exactly what they’re getting isn’t always clear. When the Treasury Department logs financial transactions in its records, including transactions for grants that are awarded by federal agencies to state and local recipients, it assigns a unique account code to each one depending on its purpose. This review covers all publicly disclosed DOJ grants for “State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance,” which excludes grants below $25,001, grants to individuals, and any classified transactions. (When reached for comment in March, a spokesperson for the Justice Department told Rolling Stone that they would not be able to provide more detailed internal data on the virus-relief grants by press time.)

More than a year after the Justice Department began doling out this relief, details are still emerging on where at least some of the money ended up.

North Carolina’s public safety department got a $15.37 million virus grant on April 22nd, 2020. It gave $333,000 of those funds to its State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) on June 9th — after a weeklong curfew and state of emergency following protests in its capital — to buy “software tools” for “gathering intelligence and enhancing surveillance of crowded gatherings as the state’s population continues efforts to open retail outlets, businesses, and other commerce.” That same day, the North Carolina National Guard got $602,700 for technology “to improve the communication capabilities throughout the entire state.” More than six months later, on January 5th, 2021, North Carolina gave another $1.2 million to its Guard for a request with the exact same phrasing, which only references the pandemic by saying the upgrades “will provide greater access and collaboration during state emergencies among all levels of government (Federal, State, local, tribal).”

A North Carolina public safety department spokesperson told Rolling Stone the SBI spent its virus money on public-data monitoring software from Dataminr. This controversial New York-based artificial intelligence startup inhales information from a mix of 100,000 public sources, including through its rare access to Twitter’s “firehose” — the full flow of posts by the social-media site’s hundreds of millions of users at the moment they’re sent — and allows corporate, journalistic, and governmental clients worldwide to track that vast data in real-time. Since its 2009 launch, Dataminr’s services have become unique tools for law-enforcement networks to rapidly compile and share police intelligence, including during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. The spokesperson cited only a need for Dataminr’s tech to track “threats directly related to or caused by the pandemic,” like Covid-19 cases, “pandemic-related protests and civil disturbances,” and recently, “vaccine availability and vaccine site issues.” As for the state’s National Guard, the spokesperson said its relief expenses include radio upgrades, “distributed antenna systems at five locations,” and audio-visual upgrades for its Joint Force Headquarters: A 237,000 square-foot facility the Guard shares with agencies including the State Highway Patrol, home to “a state of the art media wall broadcasting highway traffic from across the State and region” for 24/7 monitoring, according to the facility’s architect.

A $3.6 million virus grant went to the department of Hawaii Attorney General Clare Conners, a former district court nominee of President Barack Obama, on April 30th, 2020. On January 5th, Conners’ office green-lit $195,000 of it for officers from the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement to buy four all-terrain vehicles, one four-wheel drive van, and 15 FLIR thermal imaging monoculars, in an effort to crackdown on “violations of the Governor’s and Mayor’s emergency rules and orders.” These thermal devices detect heat signatures to see people and objects through obstructions like fog and, in some cases, walls. At a retail price of $3,295 a piece, FLIR’s top monocular offers “geotagged video recording,” instantly encrypted livestream, and “constant thermal supervision” from long distances.

Jason Redulla, the chief of DOCARE, which is part of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, said in a statement to Rolling Stone that his agency hasn’t yet bought the vehicles or FLIR devices, but when it does, the virus relief will be used to reimburse the costs. “DOCARE is often called upon to respond to remote areas, off-pavement, in which large gatherings and other violations of emergency rules and orders have occurred,” Redulla said. “The equipment requested for purchase will be used to facilitate law enforcement response to these situations, thus assisting in the prevention and response to the coronavirus.”

Dozens of other police forces got their own thermal cameras, some using virus relief and others drawing from non-pandemic grants. According to the ACLU, they’re now a popular attachment on police helicopters and drones. McElrath says they’re increasingly being used to sniff out illicit indoor weed growers, and that as marijuana laws ease up in the U.S., departments may be gearing up to arrest more people in the name of regulating the private market. The devices raise Fourth Amendment questions, he says, which the U.S. Supreme Court last addressed in 2001, before the technology had developed to a broad user base. A 5-4 decision in that case affirmed that a warrant is required to scan for heating lamps with the devices from outside a private home.

“You have police departments all over the place just grabbing stuff because it’s easy money, it’s easy equipment,” McElrath says.

Police march through the tear gas toward the crowd of protesters blocking Nevada Avenue Saturday night, May 30, 2020, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Protests have been erupting all over the country after George Floyd died on Memorial Day in police custody in Minneapolis. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)

Police in Colorado Springs, Colorado got $665,100 for pandemic supplies like PPE, as well as thermal imaging cameras.

Creative language

Some state and local agencies have reported details on their virus-relief spending in mandatory disclosures of “subgrants.” When a recipient of federal grant money, like the Hawaii Attorney General, gives a slice of that grant money to someone else, like the agency requesting to buy FLIR’s thermal tech, that’s a subgrant. Disclosures of these slices help account for where the Covid funds went. Many other recipients, though, haven’t been as forthcoming with follow-up details.

When it comes to distributing funds, grants are one way the government doles out money. Another common way is through private contracting. According to Hudson Hollister, a data transparency advocate who helped lobby public contract and grant spending disclosures into law, government contracts are subject to the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which sets universal rules from before the first bid on a contract to the day all of its terms are met. However, “grants are not,” Hollister says. “There’s no government-wide regulation with that same level of force for grants.”

Federal agencies like the Justice Department aren’t required to publicly report much of anything beyond dollar figures in their own grant disclosures. Useful details mostly arise in follow-up disclosures of subgrants, which are the responsibility of recipients. Even then, a state or local agency may just keep those under wraps; Hollister says he’s never heard of the government enforcing a requirement to disclose. “If the recipient of the prime grant doesn’t do its job and report its subaward to the outdated, horrible federal portal, then nobody will ever know,” he says.

Experts and former procurement officials describe regulation of subgrants as a problem in general. On top of that, a special exemption from the usual application process was made in the case of these virus-relief grants. The DOJ explicitly loosened its oversight standards by “suspending the requirements for [Covid-19] grant recipients to receive prior approval (either at the time of award or through a Grant Adjustment Notice) before making subawards,” as stated in its official solicitation.

Even when subgrants are publicly reported, obfuscation is a common tactic. “Law enforcement tends to get very creative with the language to get these procurements through,” McElrath says.

Florida’s public disclosures include more than 130 subgrants worth $25.3 million of its law-enforcement relief, but each award is described only with a variation of this empty word-salad: “The subrecipient will use funds under the CESF Program for purposes of preparing for, preventing, and/or responding to the coronavirus.” (Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement didn’t respond to a request for comment.) Similar blanket statements are offered in subgrant disclosures from other states as the only context for how millions of dollars of their own virus relief is being spent.

Some subgrant disclosures group basics like masks and disinfectant with less mundane upgrades. Police in Colorado Springs got $665,100 for a request that placed PPE and sanitization alongside “additional evidence storage capacity,” video equipment for its public relations office, and thermal imaging cameras like the FLIR devices in Hawaii.

Politics of fear

Coronavirus relief made up about two-thirds of the Justice Department’s grants for state and local law enforcement in fiscal year 2020 – hundreds of millions more were available regardless of a pandemic. So this recent pandemic-specific relief is just one recent manifestation of a Robocop-meets-Pimp My Ride style of spending that persists from president to president.

As they currently exist, government-wide standards for public grant disclosures are the result of laws passed in 2006 and 2014. However, there are still plenty of gaps in transparency and enforcement, according to Hollister, who helped craft the 2014 law. One example is a mismatch in systems for identifying private entities from agency to agency, which lead federal analysts to spend more time on correcting messy data than on enforcing rules and finding fraud. A bill recently introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Illinois) would expand the 2006 law by requiring public disclosure of all “budget justifications,” which are detailed explanations agencies give Congress for how they plan to spend their requested annual funding, including money for grants. The bill got seven co-sponsors, including progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and three Republicans, and passed the House on January 5th with a whopping 412-to-two vote. But the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee has kept the bill in limbo without a vote since the following day, when pro-Trump fanatics stormed the capital and Democrats solidified a new Senate majority.

When money is spent, transparency alone can’t change who got it and what they bought. Brendan McQuade, a criminology professor at the University of Southern Maine, was shocked years ago when he reviewed a stack of grants from traditional federal programs that had been approved to fusion centers, which are state-level data collection facilities tied to secretive federal operations. “The money seemed to be given rather freely,” he says. “I just compared it to the hoops I had to jump through to get money from the [National Science Foundation] for my dissertation.”

McQuade, whose studies focus on police intelligence, anticipates a continued rise in federal and state spending on expansions of policing. “The politics of fear are persuasive, powerful and easy, and you can always concoct an imaginary enemy — whether it’s Al-Qaeda or squeegee kids in New York City,” he says. Aaron Good, a political scientist and author of a soon-to-come book for Skyhorse Publishing, American Exception: Empire and the Deep State, sees the police state’s expansion as intrinsic to an ongoing, profit-minded power consolidation, from defense to real-estate to Silicon Valley. “We have more empty homes than we have homeless people” Good says. “Some of these entities need to be broken up so they cannot exert so much control. But if they’re not going to do that, they’re going to need this police state. With all this coronavirus money going to ‘security,’ it seems to suggest that — intentionally or not — just such a surveillance machine is being built.”

The “American Rescue Plan” enacted on March 12th allocates a total of $350 billion to state and lower governments for a range of potential uses. All of this money can go towards real needs in communities devastated by economic and health crises, like small-business assistance and premium pay to workers deemed essential. Yet, as the last round of CARES Act funding makes clear, a clever public servant could spin some of it into new policing expansions. With “government services” among the relief bill’s broadly permitted expenses, the potential for exploitation at state and local levels dwarfs the federal manpower meant to prevent it — and there’s little stopping police forces around the country from expanding in ways that will long outlast the pandemic.

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