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America's biggest police departments are getting spy gear through private charities

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NYPD and LAPD both acquired expensive security tools and gifts outside the public eye using police foundations

Many Americans have recently expressed concerns with the increasing use of military gear by police departments in this country, especially in the wake of the police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri (protests that were themselves sparked by a lethal police shooting). While it is very easy to focus on militarization after seeing jarring pictures of police pointing semi-automatic rifles at demonstrators, a separate but no less questionable practice has been quietly taking root at some of America's biggest police departments in the past decade. As ProPublica reports, the police departments of New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Oakland have all turned to private police foundations in recent years to acquire new crime fighting and law enforcement gear — everything from horses for mounted police units to spy software developed by intelligence contractor Palantir (a grateful LAPD appeared in the following 2013 advertisement for Palantir's crime investigation platform, which knits together data from a variety of sources, from police reports to license plate readers).

These police foundations are considered charities, and the equipment they buy for police departments is typically given as "gifts" or "donations." The his process allows police departments to get their hands on controversial new equipment without having to spend money from their budgets — which have been slashed in the wake of the 2009 recession — and without getting approval from public authorities such as city council members, according to ProPublica. In a further note of concern, large corporations including Palantir and Motorola have donated to police foundations that later purchased their technology. While company spokespersons said the practices were sound, ProPublica's diligent investigation reveals that, at the very least, more public oversight of the relationship between police foundations and departments would be helpful in keeping track of what exactly the police have at their disposal and how it got there.

Correction: this story has been updated to clarify that the rifles cited in the Ferguson protests were "semi-automatic" not "automatic" as previously stated.