Protesters gather in Union Square in New York City on the fourth straight day of protests. Ron Adar/shutterstock
Protesters gather in Union Square in New York City on the fourth straight day of protests. Ron Adar/shutterstock

Calls for better policing, especially in the wake of police brutality against black people and subsequent unrest, are nothing new in the United States. Neither is continually stalled progress. Just look at the aftermath of the “long, hot summer of 1967,” a season of nation-spanning racial unrest that led the Johnson administration to convene the Kerner Commission, an effort to get at root causes and identify solutions.

The commission’s findings, published over 50 years ago, are eerily apt today. One section reads: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Lyndon B. Johnson and subsequent federal administrations ignored the report. In a deep dive by the Marshall Project, Nicole Lewis describes how Johnson—he of the Great Society and the War on Poverty—nevertheless doubled down on a law and order agenda during his final years in office. The Kerner Commission’s frank assessment of the role of race in the problems of policing, and, indeed, in the broader failings of American society, fell by the wayside.

Many see the nationwide outrage and mass protests following the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police as a chance to correct longstanding systemic failures, or at least make some real progress on police reform. But that’s always been a tall order. As one group of experts notes in a detailed take on what real reform might look like, policing in the United States is split between more than 18,000 agencies, all with their own governance, policies and procedures. And until now, there hasn’t been enough political will to challenge underlying problems of white supremacy and lawlessness within law enforcement.

Over the past two weeks, however, the sheer size and persistence of the nation’s response suggest that something will have to change. For one, it’s been remarkable to see the conversation around policing in America shift, with the emergence of a mainstream discussion about defunding and even abolishing police. It will be fascinating to see whether any major players in philanthropy throw their weight behind these more radical demands for change.

Philanthropy can only play an indirect role in policing reform, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good levers to pull. Here are a few ways philanthropic funding has contributed to policing reform efforts in recent history, helping lay the groundwork for this year’s energized movement.

People Power

In the end, it’s elected officials and police departments that enact and implement policing reforms. But as the Minneapolis City Council’s striking pledge to dismantle and rebuild the city’s policing system demonstrates, the impact of mass movements can be profound. In a flash, they can generate the political will for structural change where little existed before.

Philanthropy, especially of the mainstream liberal variety, has often been reticent about funding movement actors. But the reality is that tiptoeing around organizing deprives funders of a powerful means to effect change. Over the past decade or so, a strong grassroots movement for racial equity in the justice system has gained steam. Impassioned organizers and small donors lie at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies, but some bigger funders have also played a key role.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) got its start after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer in 2013. Activists’ actions during and after the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, made the movement a national focus of attention, and with that came more funding. It’s no surprise that the funders backing BLM groups and other police reform organizing tend to be the same ones that support progressive organizing in general. The Ford Foundation, for instance, partnered with Borealis Philanthropy to set up the Black-Led Movement Fund, a donor collaborative that has channeled around $3 million to BLM groups since 2016. Some of the other funders involved include the General Service Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Common Counsel Foundation, the Overbrook Foundation and Tides.

A similar cast of funders backs Color of Change, a racial justice advocacy group that has taken on a prime role in the justice reform ecosystem. The organization’s president, Rashad Robinson, recently joined Barack Obama and former attorney general Eric Holder in a virtual town hall to discuss the George Floyd murder and prospects for police reform. Like many new progressive movement groups (or newish—it was founded in 2005), Color of Change is a 501(c)(4). It operates alongside the Color of Change Education Fund, a 501(c)(3). Some 501(c)(3) funders include Ford, OSF, Kellogg, Robert Wood Johnson, Open Philanthropy and the JPB Foundation. On the (c)(4) side, Color of Change is on the Democracy Alliance’s list of recommended organizations.

The Advancement Project is another national organization that actively supports grassroots groups calling for policing reforms. Through its Justice Project, the Advancement Project has elevated organizing in hotspots like St. Louis, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, and supported actions like the Colin Kaepernick-inspired “take a knee” protests in the NFL.

The Advancement Project is actually composed of two branches: a national organization and a branch focused on California. Work on policing and criminalization falls under the national organization, whose funders include many of the same names: Ford, Kellogg, OSF and JPB, as well as MacArthur and Rockefeller. Funding also comes in through progressive-oriented intermediaries and DAF sponsors like the New Venture Fund, NEO Philanthropy, and Tides. Like Color of Change, the Advancement Project is also recommended to the Democracy Alliance’s (c)(4) donors.

Those are just a few of the larger national movement groups pushing for policing reforms. Local Black Lives Matter chapters and other coalitions are active in specific cities. For instance, Communities United for Police Reform opposes discriminatory policing practices in New York City, where it has buy-in from an impressive list of local organizing groups. Its philanthropic funders include the NoVo Foundation and Tides, and it’s fiscally sponsored by the North Star Fund. North Star, by the way, set up its Let Us Breathe Fund after the death of Eric Garner, and has disbursed over $860,000 to anti-racist and anti-police violence organizations in New York City.

Under Color of Law

In many spheres, targeted litigation can magnify and lock in the impact of grassroots organizing. The role of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education decision is one well-known example of a legal defense organization securing lasting reform.

However, it’s often difficult for litigation to make an impact when it comes to policing reform. One factor is qualified immunity, a doctrine that protects individual officers from lawsuits, in most cases, when they violate someone’s constitutional rights. The argument around qualified immunity is complex, but the gist of the problem is that it can lessen personal accountability and embolden bad behavior.

LDF has disputed qualified immunity, along with the ACLU and other groups, including libertarian outfits like the Cato Institute and conservative organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom. Through its Policing Reform Campaign, launched in 2015, LDF advocates for legal reforms on the federal, state and local levels. LDF remains on the front lines of the fight for civil rights and protections, drawing on funding from (you guessed it) places like OSF, Ford, Kellogg and Rockefeller, as well as DAF money from Tides, Schwab Charitable and the like. Michael Jordan has also given to LDF in the past.

Along with LDF, the 501(c)(3) Equal Justice Initiative is another well-funded legal organization that advocates for policing reform and related civil rights measures. It has also received funding from Ford and OSF, as well as significant support from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Schwab Charitable and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Along with some of the other organizations mentioned in this piece, the Equal Justice Initiative participated in an Obama-era analogue to 1968’s Kerner Commission called the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The task force convened in response to the Ferguson unrest, and its lengthy recommendations have loomed large on the policing reform scene since they were released in 2015.

It’s not a legal advocacy organization, but it’s worth mentioning that the Obama Foundation and the former president himself have been vocal in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. In addition to that virtual town hall, Obama has called on the nation’s mayors to review and reform their law enforcement agencies’ use-of-force policies. The Obama Foundation plans to release a report on the cities that take up that pledge in approximately three months.

Research and Its Limits

In a recent piece in the Atlantic, Adam Harris goes where think tanks fear to tread, questioning whether “yet another blue-ribbon report” will do much at all to address systemic racism. “Politicians have to actually act on the recommendations—the ones that have been laid out decade after decade—and they have to do it now,” he writes.

Harris’ critique certainly applies to the 1968 Kerner Commission report (he discusses how it was “largely ignored”). It could just as well apply to the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, whose recommendations found a welcoming home in federal circles until January 2017, when they didn’t. The point is that studying a problem isn’t an automatic step toward fixing it.

But that shouldn’t discourage philanthropic funders whose first instinct on policy matters is to fund a report or three. Research is vital, as long as there are elected officials interested in it, or obliged by popular pressure to take a look. Funding research and technical assistance is one area where the list of players deviates a bit from the usual progressive backers of movement building and legal advocacy.

Dubbing itself a “research and action think tank,” the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) is one important nexus for data on racial disparities in law enforcement. CPE created the nation’s first database to track national statistics on police behavior, and it’s working on data-driven processes to sniff out bias. Fittingly, Google is one of CPE’s big funders, having granted the organization $6 million in 2016 to build out the database. Other major funders include Tides and the Greater Washington Community Foundation.

CPE has also emerged as one of the go-to destinations for tech sector policing reform gifts in the wake of George Floyd’s death. New donations are coming in fast, including $1 million from Netflix’s Reed Hastings, $1 million from Uber that CPE will split with the Equal Justice Initiative, and $1 million from YouTube.

Another organization, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, straddles the bounds between research, education, communications and coalition-building. It’s the (c)(3) arm of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights. The Education Fund’s backers include some of the progressive regulars, like Ford, OSF, Tides, JPB and Kellogg, as well as some funders from outside that group, like the Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation.

The Education Fund operates a national policing campaign aimed at community engagement and trust-building. It has also published policy recommendations, including this detailed community policing guide. Google funded that project, which was meant to build on the work of Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

I’d be remiss not to mention Arnold Ventures, which has rolled out millions in grants to universities and several other organizations in the policing world. Many of Arnold’s grants focus on studying the use of body cameras or to carry on the Data-Driven Justice initiative, which originated in the Obama administration as a methodology to reduce costs and better care for mentally-ill inmates. But while that work is mostly praiseworthy, data-driven techniques can stray into ethically murky terrain when they involve, for instance, surveillance systems deployed into communities of color.

Hope and Change

Most philanthropy-backed efforts to gather data on the criminal justice system aren’t as controversial. They’re often simply trying to counter the system’s extreme decentralization, which makes it hard to gather enough information to move forward with confidence.

The thing is, though, knowing everything shouldn’t be necessary. We already know about the justice system’s severe racial disparities, not only in policing, but in prosecutorial discretion, incarceration, probation and parole—the list goes on. We know that men of color, black men in particular, are grossly over-represented in jails and prisons. And we know that extreme violence is leveled at men like George Floyd on a regular basis, often simply because of what they look like.

Any violent unrest aside, the hope is that the current protest movement will finally break the cycle of systemic forgetfulness that has plagued justice reform for generations. In his virtual town hall, Obama expressed a degree of optimism, pointing to the youth and racial diversity of the George Floyd marchers as a sign that something might be different this time around.

It’s telling, perhaps, that of all the tech billionaires making the proper noises about systemic racism right now, one of the most woke is also among the youngest. In a memo to his employees, Snap’s white millennial CEO Evan Spiegel called for some pretty uncharacteristic policies for a billionaire, including racial reparations, a more progressive tax structure and a higher corporate tax rate.

“These circumstances call for a more radical reorganization of our society,” he wrote. “Private philanthropy can patch holes, or accelerate progress, but it alone cannot cross the deep and wide chasm of injustice. We must cross that chasm together as a united nation.”

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