Police money in US politics under scrutiny as calls for reform grow louder

George Floyd’s killing in police custody and the subsequent protests against police brutality across the US are threatening to undermine years of political lobbying efforts by US police organisations to contain Democrats’ calls for police reforms, a Financial Times analysis shows.

Campaign finance data analysed by the FT and other organisations shows that Democratic politicians have received more funds from law enforcement organisations than Republicans over the past two decades.

Since 2012, law enforcement political action committees, or PACs, which pool campaign contributions, have given at least $55m to candidates — Republicans and Democrats — in state and federal races, as well as to state-level party organisations and ballot initiatives, according to Color of Change, a civil rights political action committee.

These are significant amounts given the legal caps on contributions: at federal level, a PAC can give up to $5,000 per campaign, per election ($10,000 in a cycle with a primary and a general election) while states set their own regulations.

Local police at an event at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 in north-east Philadelphia Local police at an event at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 in north-east Philadelphia © Bastiaan Slabbers/Getty

Democrats have long sought endorsements and donations from groups including the powerful Fraternal Order of Police, which boasts more than 300,000 members — even as the organisation began endorsing Republican candidates on the presidential level. The last Democratic presidential nominee backed by the National Fraternal Order of Police was Bill Clinton in 1996.

Some of the money from police PACs has flowed to Washington. According to political research group OpenSecrets.org’s analysis of federal data, 55 police union and law enforcement PACs have donated more than $1.18m to congressional campaigns since 1990, more than 40 per cent of which has gone to current members of Congress — and Democrats in particular.

In the House of Representatives, the largest recipient of police union funding is Bill Pascrell Jr, the Democratic co-chair of the House Law Enforcement Caucus, which examines law enforcement issues. House majority leader Steny Hoyer follows; however, he has not received money from police PACs this election cycle as of June 30 2020.

A sankey chart showing majority of the top recipients of police union funding in Congress are Democrats

The trend at the federal level is mirrored at the state and local ones. Since 2002, more than 60 per cent of law enforcement PAC money to state and local candidates has gone to Democrats, according to an analysis of data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics by NoMoreCopMoney.com.

In California, Campaign Zero, a national criminal justice reform group, found that state legislators from either party who did not support police reform bills received “substantially more money from police unions and associations” during the 2015-16 legislative session.

In New York, Citizen Action of New York and the Center for Community Alternatives — two civil rights advocacy organisations — found that New York state senators who voted in April to tighten the state’s bail laws had received 10 times more contributions from police unions than those who opposed it.

“There are clear correlations between policies made and money taken on the state and local level,” said Aaron Narraph Fernando, a community organiser in Queens who launched the initiative to track New York City officials who received donations and convince them to reallocate the money.

The tide may be turning however. More than 120 politicians, including more than a dozen members of Congress, have signed a pledge to no longer accept money from the Fraternal Order of Police — the largest police professional organisation in the country — in an initiative led by Color of Change.

In left-leaning New York City, local politicians have pledged to redistribute close to $70,000 in donations they received from police PACs during the 2020 cycle to bail funds and other criminal justice organisations.

“Our belief is that if you’re going to reform the system, folks can’t also be on the payroll,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color Of Change.

A box chart showing more money has flowed from police PACs to Democrats

John McNesby, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 in Philadelphia, acknowledged in a June interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer that the group had lost some of its old political allies.

“Some of the ones who were our friends, now their phone is off the hook,” he said.

Reached by the Financial Times, Mr McNesby declined to comment on the organisation’s changing relationship with lawmakers. The national Fraternal Order of Police did not return multiple requests for comment.

Some lawmakers insist that donations do not influence their votes or decision-making. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has received more than $700,000 in police PAC donations since 2010. But a spokesperson recently told the Times Union newspaper: “No contribution of any size has any impact on a government action, period.”

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, won his 2013 campaign for mayor partially on his promise to “transform and remedy the problems of stop-and-frisk” — the harsh policing tactics which targeted black and brown men — but, according to some activists, had been slow on reform, even as he was criticised by police groups for being too progressive. During the election, Mr de Blasio received more than $13,000 in donations from law enforcement groups.

Even in New York, a Democratic city with a progressive city council, pro-law enforcement groups were able to water down a 2018 police transparency bill, according to Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil-rights group.

“The failures of [the criminal justice system] and policing — it’s not unique or limited to any political party,” says Jin Hee Lee, senior deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Campaign donations are just one way police unions exert their power, however. “Politicians fear being painted as soft on crime or anti-police, and police unions are quick to use that rhetoric against people pushing for reforms,” said Mr Roberts of Color of Change. “This year will be kind of a test to see if [that] rhetoric still is effective.”