Amazon Program Raises Money for Police Departments While the Company Says ‘Black Lives Matter’
AmazonSmile generates donations for the Los Angeles Police Foundation, San Diego Police Officers Association, and others
To the millions of shoppers who use Amazon, the company features a clear and concise statement on its homepage in support of ongoing protests in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd: “Black lives matter, Amazon stands in solidarity with the Black community.”
But the company has, in recent months, come under increased scrutiny for its own racial controversies and for its sale of surveillance tools to law enforcement. The company’s popular fundraising platform is also channeling money directly to police departments nationwide. As reported on Thursday by corporate watchdog group Eyes on the Ties, Amazon’s fundraising program AmazonSmile is being used to generate money for privately run foundations that solicit money on behalf of law enforcement across the country.
Launched in 2013, AmazonSmile allots 0.5% of every eligible purchase to participating nonprofits. To register for the program, organizations must submit an Employer Identification Number and banking information to AmazonSmile, which decides whether a nonprofit qualifies as a “registered organization” or charitable group to which Amazon customers may donate. Using GuideStar, a nonprofit database, AmazonSmile has preselected thousands of eligible charities, though not every organization on the list has registered for the program. The list includes Black Lives Matter, NAACP groups, and Copwatch, an activist network aimed at documenting police brutality. (Copwatch has not officially registered for AmazonSmile, however.) Amazon says it’s donated tens of millions of dollars to charity through the AmazonSmile Foundation, the 501(c)(3) private foundation that distributes these funds.
Not every group that meets those qualifications is welcome into the program, and Amazon has previously banned groups from AmazonSmile.
Some of these funds have made their way into the coffers of the Los Angeles Police Foundation, the San Diego Police Officers Association, and the National Police Foundation, which raise millions of dollars each year to supplement departmental budgets. In the same way that super PACs can obscure funding sources, these foundations can act as a middleman between corporate or private donors and police departments, allowing police to circumvent transparency processes around spending. As nonprofit organizations, these foundations qualify for Amazon’s charitable giving program.
Information about the amount of money individual police foundations have raised via AmazonSmile is not publicly available. According to the program’s charity database, several hundred police foundations and associations are eligible for, if not already participating in, AmazonSmile.
An Amazon spokesperson told OneZero that organizations participating in AmazonSmile “must meet the requirements outlined in our participation agreement to be eligible for AmazonSmile.” According to its terms of service, applicants must be registered as 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations rather than private foundations.
Not every group that meets those qualifications is welcome into the program, and Amazon has previously banned groups from AmazonSmile. In 2018, it blacklisted the homophobic and transphobic Alliance Defending Freedom after the organization was added to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of “hate groups.”
“Organizations that engage in, support, encourage, or promote intolerance, hate, terrorism, violence, money laundering, or other illegal activities are not eligible,” Amazon’s spokesperson told OneZero. “If at any point an organization violates this agreement, its eligibility will be revoked.”
Amazon added that, since 2013, it has partnered with the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control and the Southern Poverty Law Center to help it “make these determinations.”
There is now a growing movement to defund police as spending by law enforcement rises.
In response to OneZero’s inquiry about police foundations and AmazonSmile, the Southern Poverty Law Center said that Amazon uses its “hate group list as the basis for some of the nonprofits that it excludes from this program, specifically hate groups and other types of far-right extremists that attempt to profit from the program.”
“Amazon has been using one of its charitable arms to help fund police foundations that purchase surveillance equipment and weaponry for police forces and offer networks of corporate and civic support that help prop up police power,” wrote Eyes on the Ties.
There is now a growing movement to defund police as spending by law enforcement rises — often at the cost of programs that assist youth and communities of color. This month, the Minneapolis school board voted to terminate its contract with local police, and proponents of criminal justice reform are calling on other institutions to follow suit. In addition to federal and state funding, communities must also contend with the private funding of police surveillance, equipment, and deadly weaponry.
In 2007, the Los Angeles Police Foundation, which promotes AmazonSmile on its website, acquired $200,000 for the purchase of Palantir surveillance software to be “donated” to the Los Angeles Police Department according to a 2014 ProPublica report on police nonprofits. The foundation also bankrolled the acquisition of “Stingray” devices and license plate readers for the LAPD. In 2014, Los Angeles city officials protested when the foundation accepted monetary donations from body-camera company Taser and subsequently purchased and gifted Taser equipment to the police department. The private organization “doesn’t have to follow city purchasing rules,” the Los Angeles Daily News reported at the time.
Elsewhere, the Atlanta Police Foundation purchased thousands of surveillance cameras for the city in 2014, raising concern from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which warned of “significant chilling effects” on Atlanta’s majority-Black community.
In recent years, Amazon has also sold facial recognition software to police departments and helped create neighborhood surveillance networks through its subsidiary Ring. As Wired’s Sidney Fussel wrote, the sum of these parts effectively amount to a “dragnet … when devices far outside of crime scenes are included.”
On Sunday, Amazon declared in a tweet that “the inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop.” It has also pledged $10 million to racial justice organizations. In response to a query from OneZero, the company did not indicate that it would reconsider the participation of police foundations in the AmazonSmile program.