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The Unlikely Funding Source That's Allowing U.S. Law Enforcement to Acquire Spy Gear

FILE - In this April 27, 2012, file photo, Seattle Police officer Reuben Omelanchuk is at the controls of the department's new, small radio-controlled Draganflyer X6 drone with a camera attached, in Seattle. The mayor of Seattle ended the police department's drone program after local residents protested in 2013. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said Thursday, June 5, 2014 that he's aware of the controversy over drones and he'll talk to privacy and civil rights groups before deciding whether to use a pair of radio-controlled aerial surveillance craft transferred from the Seattle PD. LAPD officials have said they hope to use the Seattle equipment for standoffs and suspect searches, like the robot they use for suspicious packages. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Alan Berner, File) AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Alan Berner, File

Police departments in at least three of America's largest cities used private charity dollars to buy gear they otherwise might never could have purchased, an investigation by ProPublica revealed.

The Los Angeles Police Department used money from the Los Angeles Police Foundation to purchase equipment developed by Palantir, a startup venture capital project funded in part by the CIA.

Palantir's technology makes it possible to track individuals by using conventional sources such as crime reports as well as more modern techniques such as surveillance cameras, license plate readers and other data gathering technology.

FILE - In this April 27, 2012, file photo, Seattle Police officer Reuben Omelanchuk is at the controls of the department's new, small radio-controlled Draganflyer X6 drone with a camera attached, in Seattle. LAPD officials have said they hope to use the Seattle equipment for standoffs and suspect searches, like the robot they use for suspicious packages. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Alan Berner, File) 

The LAPD could have spent its own money on Palantir's software, but that would have required public meetings, city council approval and possibly even competitive bidding. Instead, the L.A. Police Foundation, a private charity, asked Target Corp. to donate $200,000, the foundation's executive director Cecilia Glassman said. Target donated the money and the foundation then donated it to the LAPD, ProPublica reported.

Among the foundation's other donors: Palantir Technologies, which donated $10,000 in 2013.

But the LAPD isn't the only force raising some eyebrows. Palantir was also awarded a contract with NYPD just three years ago and the police foundation in Atlanta drew criticism when it donated 12,000 cameras to that city's police department.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, expressed concern for the motives potentially driving these transactions: "We run the risk of policy that is in the service of moneyed interests," she said.

Dick Dadey of the nonprofit good government group Citizens Union in New York, echoed Lieberman: "The public needs to know that these contributions are being made voluntarily and have no bearing on contracting decisions."

While critics question whether the prospect of contract agreements have any bearing on a company or individual's decision to donate to the foundations, others worry what else police are buying with donated funds.

In 2010 it was reported by the New York Times and Huffington Post that New York Police Commissioner had used donation funds to pay for his membership, meals and drinks at the upscale Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan. And in 2013, NYPD used about $3 million in donated money to fund what it called a "technology campaign."

Side of a New York Police Department vehicle (Photo credit: Shutterstock) Side of a New York Police Department vehicle (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

JPMorgan Chase gave the New York Police Foundation $4.6 million to buy 1,000 laptops and monitoring software for the department's main data center. The Los Angeles Police Foundation was given $250,000 in 2010 for counter-terrorism tracking equipment and another $460,000 the next year for surveillance cameras and license plate readers. And in 2012, it got close to $25,000 for equipment that collects cellphone metadata, calls, text messages and data transfers from up to a half-mile radius to monitor potential drug transactions, ProPublic found.

As some have raised objections to these types of practices, New York's Glassman doesn't see a problem.

"I think we all see ourselves as part of a larger puzzle, which is making sure that Los Angeles has a world class police department, and we're just the private funding source. The commission is an oversight board and the department is here to protect and serve," Glassman said.

But Peter Bibring of the ACLU in Southern California isn't buy it: "These technologies are adopted without any kind of public discussion, without clear policies on how they should be used," Bibring said.

The Atlanta Police Foundation helped the city's police department acquire 12,000 cameras to help track perpetrators inside cars, identify suspects in crowds and notify police where crimes might occur. Police in Atlanta hope to obtain four times as many cameras by the end of 2015.

Atlanta skyline as seen from Centennial Olympic Park (Photo credit: Shutterstock) Atlanta skyline as seen from Centennial Olympic Park (Photo credit: Shutterstock)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported officials are aiming to install surveillance cameras at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Georgia State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia Department of Transportation, Atlanta Public Schools, federal buildings and Georgia Aquarium, among other places.

Jay Stanley, ACLU senior policy analyst, said, “There’s no reason for a city to be building a giant video surveillance network like that. It will create some significant chilling effects on society if every minute, people know that they’re being watched," the newspaper reported.

TheBlaze published a four-part series earlier this year in which it described the multiple Army brigades' multiple requests for Palantir equipment in Afghanistan because it would allow troops to more efficiently track the enemy's movements and thus more accurately predict where to expect attacks. Read the first, second, third and fourth parts of that series.

NYPD, LAPD and the Atlanta Police Department did not respond to TheBlaze about concerns that acquisition of gear through police foundations disallows public input.

Read the full ProPublica article here.

Follow Jon Street (@JonStreet) on Twitter

Front page image via Shutterstock

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