Last week, the White House announced that federal funding for COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccines would soon be depleted unless Congress approves a new spending bill. While Republicans are largely responsible for the ongoing Congressional stalemate, the Biden administration has been criticized for encouraging local governments to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief aid package that was approved last March, on policing in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.
“I want more cities and states to use some of the $350 billion we sent to them on the American Rescue Plan to fight crime, to keep our communities safe by hiring more police officers for community policing and paying police overtime,” said President Biden at a Gun Violence Prevention Task Force Meeting in February 2022, “and purchasing gun-fighting technologies, like technologies that hears, locates gunshots so there can be immediate response because you know exactly where it came from.”
State and local officials across the country have heeded this call, and some towns and cities are now approving police requests to spend pandemic relief funds on drones and armored vehicles. The Kingsport Police Department, a small agency in Tennessee, purchased two “military-grade” drones in early March. And Dixon County City Council in California is considering using ARPA funds on a police drone program, body-worn cameras, and a license plate reader program.
As the US approaches the grim milestone of 1 million COVID deaths, the use of pandemic funding on police technology has been criticized by local activists like Jasmine, the organizing director for Community Movement Builders, a grassroots Black liberation organization based in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood.
“There is plenty of money for people, it is just being spent in ways that are antagonistic to working class Americans,” Jasmine, who asked to withhold her last name because she fears police retaliation, told Motherboard.
Dekalb County, in the Atlanta metro area, used over half a million dollars in pandemic relief funds to buy aerial drones, Flock automated license plate readers, additional license plate readers, and a mobile precinct. Millions more went to other police-related expenses.
Meanwhile, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department in Missouri spent $334,715 of its $2.6 million allotment on a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle to replace a mine-resistant, 60,000-pound armed personnel carrier that the county received previously. Butler County, Pennsylvania bought a $330,000 Gurkha armored vehicle and the Hancock County Board of Commissioners in Ohio approved the purchase of a BearCat armored vehicle with ARP funds at a price tag of around $250,000 earlier this month.
Jasmine said the government and police departments are fueling policing in response to a growing working class movement that is fighting for Black liberation, reducing the size and scope of policing, and against capitalist economic exploitation.
“The government at this point is honestly preparing for war and retaliation against the working class. They treat us as if they're an occupying force in our communities,” she said. “I think the technology that they're funding speaks to that …The state relies on the police to enforce capitalism, to protect property and to essentially ensure that people are funneled into exploitative labor practices.”
The injection of ARPA funds into the Dekalb County Police Department’s budget, according to Jasmine, is reminiscent of local officials' attempts to build a $90 million police training facility known locally as “Cop City,” which would raze dozens of acres of forest in the county. Officials ramped up their efforts to build the facility, she said, after people took to the streets against police brutality and the Atlanta Police Department’s murder of Rayshard Brooks in 2020.
Local governments, including officials in Dekalb County, have pointed to spikes in crime rates during the pandemic to justify spending ARPA funds on policing. “This funding will allow us to proactively work to mitigate the growing crisis of homicides and violent crimes in metro Atlanta and holistically address the root causes and effects of crime throughout DeKalb County,” Dekalb County CEO Michael Thurmond told local news outlet 11 Alive.
Abolitionist scholars and activists, however, argue that systems of organized violence such as police and prisons exist to reinforce social hierarchies, not increase public safety.
“There's always this narrative, particularly in the pandemic, that crime is spiking, that folks are becoming more violent, when in reality, people are just becoming more and more desperate, because they're working 40 hours a week, if not more, and are still unable to feed their families,” said Jasmine. “And so this narrative about crime is really just a justification for expanding the police state even further, such that when people push back, the state is ready to crush those movements.”
The Dekalb County Board of Commissioners and the Dekalb County Police Department did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
Localities could choose to exclusively fund what abolitionist-scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls life-affirming institutions, such as free food programs, rather than policing. Non-police interventions, like providing low-income homeowners with grants to fix plumbing and heating in their homes, have been shown to decrease criminalized behaviors.
“When we talk to people in [the] community, the things that they say keep them safe are housing, food and water security,” said Jasmine, “and also having pathways toward resolving conflicts that do not rely on criminalization or the carceral state that are based in transformative and restorative justice. Those are not things that police are equipped to do because the institution of policing is not actually here to keep individuals safe.”