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Chula Vista Police’s Unusual Fundraising Arrangement Draws Scrutiny

The Chula Vista Police Department. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Two Chula Vista candidates and one member of the City Council say city police officers should stop fundraising while on the job.

Throughout the first half of this year, city Police Chief Roxana Kennedy and several of her top officers solicited donations and planned a fundraising dinner during work hours [1]. The city also paid over $10,000 in overtime to officers to attend the dinner for the Chula Vista Police Foundation.

“I’m most concerned about the $10,526 of overtime for a GALA!” Jill Galvez, a candidate for City Council, said in an email. “We need to look at the past 20 years, and figure out when the problematic practice of mingling public and private funds began. Police officers should not be staffing galas.”

Chula Vista’s police foundation was created over a decade ago [2] to raise money for the department, which is so understaffed it has trouble responding to emergencies. There are more than 250 similar foundations across the country, according to a study by a trio of Canadian researchers [3].

Foundations are now a common way for larger departments to supplement the taxpayer funding they get, though money raised by foundations is not supposed to go to “core” police functions, a somewhat nebulous term.

The research trio has studied several ways foundation fundraising and management can lead to conflicts of interest and even corruption. Sometimes foundations ask for or receive money from companies that already do business with the department or are trying to.

In Chula Vista, officers solicited money from companies that do business with the city. For instance, after Panasonic, which the department bought $400,000 worth of computers from, said it couldn’t donate immediately, the chief emailed one of her police captains to say, “This company needs to step up.”

Departments can also buy potentially controversial things – like surveillance equipment – with little public scrutiny by using foundation money. That happened in Los Angeles, according to a ProPublica investigation [4].

The researchers also wrote about how galas – like the one Chula Vista’s police foundation threw – can raise concerns about the status of police departments as impartial institutions.

In a few emails, Chula Vista officers said giving money to the foundation would buy donors access to “dignitaries” from the city government, including the city’s “movers and shakers.”

Similar concerns led the chairman of the Saskatchewan Police Commission in Canada to say it looks bad for police to accept such private money [5].

“Policing isn’t a charity. It’s an essential public service,” the chairman, Neil Robertson, said in 2016.

Most police foundations have at least a few paid staffers to handle fundraising, said Alex Luscombe, one of the researchers, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto.

Chula Vista’s didn’t have that, leaving members of the department to do fundraising and party planning during city hours. The city says that since the senior officers were all salaried, meaning that even though they were doing foundation business during work hours, it’s hard to know if those tasks jeopardized public safety because they aren’t paid by the hour.

But Hector Gastelum, a candidate for mayor, said the city budget should not be subsidizing the foundation. If elected, he said he would be willing to help raise money for the foundation, but only outside of normal work hours.

“I love our city, and I love that there are nonprofits that do a great job of helping people, but all of that cannot be done during regular business,” he said.

City Councilman John McCann praised the foundation and said it is now looking to hire an executive director to help with its fundraising.

“An executive director will ensure that the foundation will be able to continue its good work and confirm they are protecting our taxpayers,” he said in an email.

Other members of the City Council did not respond to requests for comment.

But staffing up the foundation may only create new concerns.

Luscombe said, in his experience, foundations are not very transparent. That’s because while they are affiliated with the police department, they do not turn over records in response to public records requests, meaning they can hide their donors. (Because police officers using city email accounts were running the Chula Vista foundation, the department turned over documents when Voice of San Diego requested them).

Police foundations “just talk about transparency, but there is very little transparency,” Luscombe said.