Major Corporations and Institutions Are Helping to Build “Cop City” in Atlanta

In 2021, LittleSis and Color of Change profiled 1,400 corporate connections to 22 major police foundations across the United States. These connections spanned every industry, including telecommunications, real estate, finance, big tech, and oil and gas, as well as universities, sports franchises, and cultural institutions.

Despite the United States spending upwards of $100 billion on policing each year, police foundations act as a backchannel for corporate and wealthy interests by funding policing even further, adding to already overinflated budgets without any required public oversight, approval, or accountability. These foundations fundraise millions each year with little transparency and provide a slush fund for the police. The funding contributes to police militarization through the purchase of weapons, body armor, and controversial surveillance technology such as “predictive policing” software.

There is no clearer example of this relationship than in Atlanta, where the police foundation pledged to raise $60 million for a proposed “Cop City,” a police training facility that would be built on 85 acres of protected forest land. The training facility will feature “a mock village, an emergency vehicle driving course, firing range, and an area for explosives training.” However, while the Atlanta Police Foundation is footing much of the bill, Atlantans would be forced to pay an additional $30 million for the facility, despite wide-reaching and vocal community opposition.

This push for Cop City from the corporate-backed Atlanta Police Foundation comes on the heels of “Operation Shield”, a 2017 effort to develop a network of nearly 11,000 surveillance cameras and license plate readers across Atlanta. The project made Atlanta the most heavily surveilled city in the U.S.

This post highlights Atlanta Police Foundation’s corporate backers and directors, many of whom have made statements or pledges supporting Black and Brown communities in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Yet these same corporate actors are now leveraging their influence and capital to push forward the Cop City development, which will invariably harm those same communities through the further militarization of police.

UPS

UPS, whose headquarters is in Atlanta, is committed to “creating social impact, advancing diversity, equity and inclusion,” and “building stronger communities.” In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, UPS pledged 10.7 million toward racial justice in 2020, during which time UPS CEO Carol Tomé said, “We will not stand quietly or idly on the sidelines of this issue.”

However, UPS’s backing of police foundations undermines any virtue signaling. The multinational shipping giant sponsors the Louisville Police Foundation, which provides direct funding to police officers and cosponsored a pro-police rally with the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) lodge, River City FOP, and holds two seats on the Atlanta Police Foundation board.

Those seats are filled by UPS’s Chief Legal and Compliance Officer Norman Brothers Jr. and former UPS Senior Vice President of U.S. Operations Calvin Darden. Darden previously served on the board of directors for Coca-Cola Enterprises. Coca-Cola has a history of donating millions to the Atlanta Police Foundation, and until April 2021, had a seat on the foundation’s board of trustees.

Georgia State University

Georgia State University touts itself as “a university for all,” and in 2021 President of Georgia State University Mark Becker said Derek Chauvin’s conviction was “a demonstration of our judicial system serving justice.”

This statement came a year after 150 faculty members sent an open letter to Becker asking the university to meet the moment after the murder of George Floyd. The letter presented a handful of diversity, inclusion, and equitable requests including providing professional development opportunities supporting the advancement of Black staff and faculty, ensuring COVID-19 reopening protects the large population of Black students and staff, and ending GSU’s involvement with the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE). The latter “partners with international law enforcement agencies that restrict civil liberties, commit human rights violations, and/or promote bigotry, signaling an aggressive, militarized over-policing of Black people and Black communities.” GILEE is still active at Georgia State University.

Georgia State University Adjunct Lecturer Dr. Deepak Raghavan serves on the Atlanta Police Foundation Executive Committee. He is also a past chair of the Georgia State Foundation Board of Trustees and currently serves on the boards of preparatory school Woodward Academy and Zoo Atlanta.

Inspire Brands

Atlanta-based Inspire Brands is a less familiar name than the franchises it houses under its umbrella such as Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Jimmy John’s, Dunkin Donuts, and Baskin-Robbins – just to name a few. Inspire Brands proudly claims that they are “Allies and Good Citizens.” Their CEO, Paul Brown, sits on the Atlanta Police Foundation Board of Trustees as well as on the boards of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Georgia Tech Foundation, and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce Executive Committee. In 2022, Atlanta Magazine listed Brown as one of Atlanta’s most powerful leaders.

In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, Brown posted a letter on LinkedIn in which he wrote, “We must continue to be Allies supporting each other regardless of backgrounds or beliefs.” The tie between Inspire Brands and the Atlanta Police Foundation is a symbiotic one as a member of the Atlanta Police Foundation, Marshall Freeman, sits on the board of The Inspire Brand Foundation.

Waffle House

Waffle House has a history of controversy related to sexual harassment and racism. Between the years 1995 and 2000, the company was charged with 90 lawsuits and in 2018, Bernice King called for a national boycott against the restaurant after several incidents occurred, two involving police brutality. In one incident, a couple was detained after disputing their bill. In response Waffle House said, “both sides could have handled this situation better.” Waffle House refused accountability in the aftermath of the second incident as well, an incident in which Chikesia Clemons was wrestled to the ground by three police officers.

Waffle House CEO and President Walt Ehmer sits on the Atlanta Police Foundation Board of Trustees, on Aaron’s Board of Directors, and was tapped by President Trump in 2020 to advise the White House on economic recovery.

Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo has been connected to several police foundations over the years. At the time of the release of this report, Wells Fargo had board seats in Atlanta and Charlotte and was a donor to foundations in Sacramento, Seattle, and St. Louis. In 2020, the bank announced that it would pause donations to police foundations. However, Color of Change could not verify that this has been done. Police foundations can hide their donors and activities from public view and several foundations have scrubbed their websites to cover their tracks.

Wells Fargo has also consistently been taken to court for fraud and discrimination. In 2020, the bank agreed to pay $3 billion to settle fraudulent sales charges and is currently being sued for race discrimination in mortgage lending practices. The lawsuit is supported by high-profile attorney Ben Crump who represents the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Southeast Small Business Leader and South Atlanta Area President at Wells Fargo Mitch Graul sits on the Atlanta Police Foundation Board of Trustees. He also serves on the Atlanta Sports Council Board of Directors.

JPMorgan

In 2020, JPMorgan committed $30 billion to advance racial equity and discussed the importance of being held accountable on their website. This contrasts with the bank’s history of racial discrimination as they settled a lawsuit filed by former and current employees for $24 million in 2018 and are currently being sued by Dr. Malika Mitchell-Stewart who was denied service at a branch in Texas.

The bank is also a big backer of the blue. In 2011, JPMorgan gave the New York City Police Foundation $4.6 million, turning the NYPD into a militarized presence during Occupy Wall Street. Heidi Boghosian of the National Lawyers Guild said it created an appearance of “the police protecting corporate interests rather than protecting the First Amendment rights of the people.” JPMorgan’s Head of Regional Investment Banking, John Richert, serves on the board at the Atlanta Police Foundation and is on the board at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Home Depot

Atlanta-based Home Depot appears to invest in Black communities specifically through the Home Depot Foundation partnership with the Westside Future Fund, which contributes to building “affordable mixed-income housing” and revitalizing parks. However, the fund is also responsible for introducing “Westside Blue”, a security patrol program with the Atlanta Police Foundation and the Atlanta Police Department.” The home improvement retail corporation serves on the boards of both the Detroit Public Safety Foundation and the Atlanta Police Foundation. Vice President of Technology Daniel Grider represents Home Depot on the Atlanta Police Foundation Board of Trustees, serves on the Home Depot Foundation Board, and was previously a police officer in Arkansas for nine years.

Since the original report came out late last year, Home Depot has had some pushback from stakeholders. Their 2022 proxy filings show that shareholders urged the company’s board of directors to oversee an independent racial audit analyzing the company’s adverse impact on nonwhite stakeholders and communities of color.. The proposal included extended references to the company’s donations to police foundations. Ultimately, Home Depot’s board voted against the proposal.

Delta Airlines

In an employee memo following the murder of George Floyd, CEO Ed Bastian said that Delta Airlines would “make an impact to take a stand against racism and injustice, from programs to policy changes” and outlined steps Delta was taking toward racial equity during Black History Month in 2021. The airline even had Black Lives Matter pins made.

But Delta’s diversity, equity, and inclusion branding received backlash after the airline was caught supporting racist politicians. In 2020, a petition challenged the Atlanta-based airline’s hypocrisy demanding Delta stop bankrolling the campaigns of David Perdue, known for mispronouncing Vice President Kamala Harris’ name in a classically racist way, and former Senator of Georgia Kelly Loeffler who opposed the WNBA’s plans to honor the BLM movement. Loeffler said, “The truth is, we need less—not more politics in sports. In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has the power to be a unifying antidote.” Loeffler was also co-owner of the Atlanta Dream at the time.

Tad Hutcheson, Vice President of Community and Public Affairs at Delta Airlines, sits on the Atlanta Police Foundation’s Board of Trustees and is board chair at Junior Achievement of Georgia.

Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena

Police foundations partner with major sports teams for events by sponsoring “Crime Stoppers’’ tiplines, which contribute to community policing, a popular copaganda myth. Copaganda is an attempt to portray police officers as heroic, friendly, and fun-loving so as to overshadow the actions of a few “bad apples”. Despite athletes standing up against racial injustice, multiple teams from various leagues remain tied to police foundations, from the New York Yankees to the Seattle Seahawks.

After the death of George Floyd, Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena CEO Steven Koonin tweeted criticizing silence and said, “Stop hiding behind your badges, stop breaking parents hearts, and stop pretending this isn’t happening.” Koonin himself sits on the Atlanta Police Foundation’s Board of Trustees and the airline was the chief sponsor of the Foundation’s 2019 signature event, A Night in Blue.

Amazon

It only took Amazon six days after the death of George Floyd to join the rest of the corporate twitterverse and show signs of solidarity by tweeting, “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop.”

An avid supporter of police foundations, the online retailer supports police foundations in Los Angeles, New York City, and Seattle, and Amazon’s Senior Public Relations Manager, Nikki Forman, sits on the board at the Atlanta Police Foundation. Previously, she worked for the foundation as their Director of Communications.

Amazon allows police foundations across the country to collect donations through their AmazonSmile program which has helped support foundations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Cleveland, and San Diego. The company also has a history of supplying police departments with tech and surveillance tools, including selling its cloud services, granting police access to private data without user consent through its Amazon Ring surveillance devices, and letting police use its facial recognition software, called Rekognition.

Axon

Formerly known as Taser, tech and weapons company Axon is represented by Sales Lead Richard Allen on the Atlanta Police Foundation’s Young Executives Board. In addition to backing the Atlanta Police Foundation, Axon supports foundations in Boston, Charlotte, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Seattle.

Axon produces electroshock weapons, body cameras and other policing equipment that is widely used by police departments across the country. The company states that its Tasers are “non-lethal,” but Reuters has documented how police have killed over 1000 people with Tasers since 2000. In 2012 and 2013, Axon donated 80 of its stun guns to the Los Angeles Police Foundation in an effort to equip the LAPD with its products without a public oversight process. Axon was lauded as a sponsor of the police foundation and became a donor to the foundation. In 2021, they renewed their 5-year contract with the LAPD making the police force the largest deployer of energy weapons in the United States.

Chick-fil-A

Police officers can get a discount at most Chick-fil-A locations, so it doesn’t come as a shock that Evan Karanovich, the chicken eatery’s Lead Advisor to the Chairman & CEO, serves on the Atlanta Police Foundation’s Young Executives Board. Prior to joining Chick-fil-A, Karanovich worked at the State Capitol in Atlanta where he served as a senior advisor to Senator David Perdue.

In June 2020, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy wrote in a statement, “Racism should have no place in society. Not now. Not ever.” Cathy also spent millions developing the land that Trilith Studios sits, and where multiple Marvel box office hits have been shot including Black Panther and Wakanda Forever. Trilith Studios and its neighboring town are currently being sued by a group of Black residents for failing to respond to racist incidents.

The Atlanta Police Foundation also has a partnership with the corporation’s foundation which seeks to “build—and execute–a plan for a safer Atlanta” but by serving on the board of the police foundation, they play an important role in making Atlanta the most surveilled city in the United States.

Corporate sponsorship of police foundations, which serve as major contributors to unregulated and unaccountable policing in our cities, undermine any statements these corporations try to make about their commitments to racial justice or police accountability.

While these corporations steer the Atlanta Police Foundation to develop Cop City and construction presses on, residents have created an uprising. The Intercept applauded the movement for its “staying power” and one protestor noted, “I didn’t ever think I’d see a movement where doctors, preschoolers and their parents, anarchists, and City Council people were all rallying together.” The Atlanta DSA, who criticized local leadership for their “alignment with corporate elites over the working-class people of Atlanta”, has mobilized residents to fight for a safe Atlanta, one without increased policing, militarization, and carceral punishment. Save The Old Atlanta Prison Farm (STOAPF) has advocated for better ways to utilize and preserve the greenspace such as nature preserves and community gardens. Protestors have set up a city of their own while they defend the forestland in hopes of protecting it from the ecological devastation this development would bring to the area.