Aaron Fernando, a 19-year-old honors student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, already knew political donations from police unions and law enforcement PACs were bad news from his work in the political realm. “I'm not the first one to talk about cop money, people [in the criminal justice space] have been talking about it for a long time,” Fernando told VICE. “I think it's immoral to take this money from these oppressive groups. People on Twitter have been calling it blood money, which I think is pretty accurate.”
Fernando’s game-changing move, however, was that he compiled a list of New York City Democratic politicians who’d taken that “cop money” this election cycle, and then brandished it online to hold them accountable. “I made this thread where I was comparing the statements that the politicians made about George Floyd and the protests,” he said. “Then I'd quote-tweet that tweet and post "Diane Savino took this much money this year from cops," kind of a stark contrast between what they're saying and what money they're taking.” Then, on May 30, he released the full spreadsheet, titled “Who’s Taking Cop Money?”
Fernando said he actually created the spreadsheet in his spare time, prior to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin. But when he saw the anti-cop backlash Floyd’s murder sparked, he felt it was the right time to release the information.
“I expected nothing,” Fernando said. “I expected no politician would care, I expected nothing was going to happen. But then the reaction was massive, people really, really cared about their elected officials taking this money.” Once incumbent New York State assemblywoman Aravella Simotas announced on May 30 that she would redistribute $5,350 in donations from police-affiliated groups to bail funds and other local organizations fighting mass incarceration, in Fernando’s words, “all the dominos fell.”
Since then, ten New York City Democrats, including Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, City Council member Mark Levine, Assemblywoman Karines Reyes, and State Senator Mike Gianaris, have returned or redistributed a total of $29,250, and Fernando is optimistic that there’s more to come.
But in the meantime, he’s been offering advice to people around the country looking to hold their elected officials accountable in the same way. VICE asked him to share his tips for readers interested in following in his footsteps on how to use public resources to find and identify donations from law enforcement to politicians, and how to get politicians to redistribute it.
Make a list, check it twice
First and foremost, it’s critical to identify which donations you’re going to flag. That means familiarizing yourself with your state’s police unions and law enforcement PACs.
“You can look for a list of unions in your state, and then you can just scroll through the list of unions and look for the ones that sound police-y,” Fernando said. Phrases like “benevolent association,” “officers,” and “enforcement” are good to look out for. But additional research is also your friend.
Fernando’s first sweep, for instance, would have been incomplete if he didn’t include donations from New York state troopers, who are responsible for traffic stops (which data clearly show are racially biased.) But at first, he also mistakenly included donations from organizations for sanitation officers and bridge and tunnel officers, which he said he quickly corrected. “You have to make a list that's as inclusive as possible but not to the point where you're including any orgs that are clearly not police.”
Head to the source
While websites like OpenSecrets track political donations, Fernando said the best place to start is the source of OpenSecrets’ data; for him, that meant the New York state board of elections website. From there, he used the website’s tools to begin his search. “You can search for contributions either by candidate or by donor, and you can specify a time range, a range in amount of contributions, all these other attributes,” he said. “And then you can compile a whole list of these contributions.”
While looking at raw contribution data can be overwhelming, Fernando suggested searching the database for keywords like “police,” “officers,” or “detectives” and checking out the disclosure reports from politicians you know have taken ample money from law enforcement so you know which donors to look out for.
When it doubt, Google it
“if you're reading someone's disclosure report and you see a weird acronym, you may wanna Google it and see if it's the police union, because it might be a police union,” Fernando said. He recounted running into obscure acronyms, as well as multiple names for the same organization, while combing through donations.
“The pitfall I found was that a lot of the names in the database, it was the same PAC but it had different names. Sometimes, the New York City PBA, it'd be the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, other times it'd just be PBA PAC, or it would be Police Benevolent Association--they'd keep changing the name.” But there was one key tell Fernando recommended everyone keep an eye out for: “You know it's the same place because it has the same address.”
Make them hear you
While compiling the data is critical, Fernando also said being loud on and off social media is just as key when it comes to forcing politicians to open their police-funded purses. “I think tagging the people really helps, and asking other people to tag them. Legislators saw the tags, and they realized that in this moment it's not a good idea to be seen as in bed with the cops!”
But he also said calling, emailing, and even talking to politicians face-to-face could help drive the point home. “I did see a tweet from someone who approached Alessandra Biaggi, the state senator, and asked her to donate the money, and apparently she said yes.”
Fernando’s spreadsheet has already helped spawn parallel action across the country, in North Carolina, California, Texas, and Oregon. With a little Googling and a willingness to hold the feet of our leaders to the fire, the next elected official apologizing on Twitter and redistributing their cop money could be yours.
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