Public Relations Spending By Police
Part 1: Scratching the surface on one of the great scandals of our time
I have been wanting to write for a while about the shadowy world of police “public relations” budgets. It is not widely understood how much of what is presented as "news" is carefully curated propaganda that taxpayers fund.
A reporter at a large corporate newspaper asked me last week for my thoughts on police PR budgets, so I decided to write up something quickly. Here in Part 1, I’ll describe some of the basics of police PR budgets and their growth, based on what little we know and using the examples of Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In Part 2 next time, I’ll analyze some of how these propaganda operations affect what we know and believe about the world and why they are so harmful.
Because the subject of how much money police spend manipulating information (and the lack of general awareness about the fact that they are doing it) is so upsetting, I’ll start with a photo of one of my favorite cats, who is also a small lion and my former roommate. Wally has one functioning eye because someone shot him with a BB gun and our society reproduces and tolerates enormous levels of preventable violence, but he has lots of wisdom.
The Sheer Number of Police PR Employees
On the day Chicago police murdered Laquan McDonald, Chicago cops had 6 full-time public relations employees. As cops fought to keep the child's murder secret with the help of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago quietly increased its police budget to 25 full-time public relations positions. Today, under the leadership of hyper-propaganda focused, pro-cop Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago cops have 48 full-time positions devoted to manipulating public information.
Chicago is not alone.1 Last year, I was asked to testify at an unprecedented hearing in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Something weird was happening: the elected leaders of San Francisco were trying to find out, amidst police stonewalling and secrecy, exactly how much money local taxpayers were spending on police PR.
There is surprisingly little information available in most cities about this, including for elected officials who want to understand what police departments whose budgets they supposedly oversee are doing. After the 2020 racial justice protests, the LA Times looked into it and found that the LA County Sheriff alone had 42 full-time employees dedicated to shaping public information. At the same time, the LAPD had another 25 full-time employees for PR work. Some of the PR leaders were making more than $200,000. If you’re keeping count, that's 67 cops doing public relations manipulation across just two departments in one U.S. county (and LA county has almost 50 other municipal and state police forces who don't report this information and who weren’t included in the LA Times investigation).
Prior to my San Francisco testimony, newly released documents showed that the relatively small SFPD had 9 full-time employee positions dedicated to “strategic communications” and “media relations.” These cops were “supplemented” by an undisclosed, secret number of non-full-time cops who do PR work for the department but not as their primary job.
It’s Much Bigger Than That
In a bombshell revelation, previously unreleased documents showed that SFPD employs a “full-time videographer” to make videos glorifying SFPD. In fact, the hearings revealed that SFPD was quietly trying to get funding to hire a second videographer in new budget requests. The first videographer cost taxpayers $120,941. Cops employing video propagandists is increasingly common after the murder of George Floyd. Take a look at what LASD made with taxpayer dollars in the middle of a scandal concerning rival criminal gangs of sheriff deputies inside the department (often signified by coded gang tatoos) accused of murdering people and committing acts of violence and extortion against other sheriff deputies:
More disturbingly, the hearings revealed to local officials that SFPD has another secretive PR unit called “Community Engagement Division,” which internal docs show is ordered to work closely to “plan messaging priorities.” This division is essentially SF’s version of the counterinsurgency propaganda efforts developed by colonial French, British, and U.S. military for occupations but now common in U.S. police forces. Among other things, the unit does sophisticated focus-group style “surveys” to inform the police department’s manipulation of public opinion, and it is even tasked with early strategic intervention with families of people killed by cops. It’s vital for cops to try to control how these families react, so police want to get to them as soon as possible. Moreover, buried in the documents disclosed to the Board of Supervisors was a chilling revelation: after police murder someone, a Sergeant has ordered: “all members of the Media Relations team should closely monitor social media for posts, video, etc. related to the [killing].”
In Chicago and hundreds of other cities following the colonial counterinsurgency model, these kinds of strategic PR units carefully plan things like basketball events for kids or food giveaways for poor families. Take a look at this video produced and disseminated by Chicago police PR officials showing armed Chicago cops giving away food in neighborhoods that a host of government policies has deliberately enclosed, segregated, extracted from, polluted, and starved:
All these expenditures and activities are a significant underestimate of actual police PR operations. Police in most cities do coordinated PR work with large teams of PR staff in Mayor’s offices. One of my favorites is a scandal involving Mayor London Breed, who was caught trying to hide text messages about coordinating with local cops to situate a press conference so that cameras would capture a Louis Vuitton store in the background of the camera shot because it was supposedly a helpful image surrounding her calls for harsher punishment of retail theft.
The few existing journalistic or local government attempts to quantify the PR expenditures and activities of police departments also does not count extraordinary PR and political messaging spending by police unions using taxpayer-funded dues on public relations that are separate from the amounts spent directly by police departments.
And none of this counts all the cash police spend on other forms of sophisticated public relations: branding, logos, slogans designed and printed on cop cars, swag, gear, and absurd public events. Think of how every police car in your city is emblazoned with a slogan like "courtesy, professionalism, respect."
These PR Employees Are Paid To Develop Close Relationships
In what should be a been a huge scandal, after Radley Balko of the Washington Post debunked false information reported by a local SF television journalist and seeded by cops, text messages were uncovered between the director of the propaganda unit and the local journalist. In the texts, the SFPD official tells reporter "Thank God for you." The reporter then asks for cops to "protect" her. SFPD official then tells her she has “a lot of fans" in "our department." He ends: "Keep up the great work."
At the time, this director of the propaganda unit at the San Francisco Police Department cost taxpayers $289,423. After these text messages were revealed publicly, the Mayor appointed him (i.e. he wasn’t elected) to fill a vacant spot on the Board of Supervisors itself, the body before which I was testifying. His reward for this scandal and a number of unhinged public comments? He’s now one of a small group of public officials who control the police budget.
One of the images from police department files uncovered by San Francisco elected officials in the police PR budget hearings says it best:
Let’s find out more:
It is revealing that police have found it necessary to create what is often, in many cities, the largest single private or public PR operation, bigger than the largest corporate PR departments in many cities. It is even further revealing that police have found it necessary to be so secretive about their public relations spending and activities. Many public agencies do not have public relations teams at all, and most agencies that spend taxpayer money on PR operations have extremely small ones.
If you're a journalist in any city in the U.S., a good next story for you would be to dig into the number of employees and budget that your local police department devotes to public relations. There's a reason they try to hide it.
In Part 2 next time, I’ll use some fascinating and outrageous examples to explain exactly how some of these PR units manipulate the information we see in the news and why I think organized information manipulation by the police bureaucracy has profound consequences for all of us.
This analysis of Chicago police PR spending by Geoffrey Cubbage at the Better Government Association is really exceptional work though. I encourage you to read it.
This is actually a more difficult thing to quantify comprehensively, because there is a lot of coordinated police activity “on the beat” in the community and on social media that is not counted as a formal part of the “public relations” budget. For example, during the recall election of “progressive” DA Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, officers routinely (and illegally in violation of California election law for publicly paid employees) spread police union talking points while on the job. Often, according to interviews I have done, police incorrectly told people that they could not investigate certain crimes or make certain arrests under the current DA and that this wouldn’t change unless he were recalled. Or, for example, in my conversations with police and local journalists in several cities, I have learned that many officers not formally being paid to do public relations will nonetheless post on social media in ways consistent with police talking points.