As protesters outraged over police killings of black people were met with police violence, AT&T took to Twitter on Sunday to say that the company’s “advocacy toward equality and inclusivity continues today and will for the future,” adding that “at AT&T we stand for equality and embrace freedom.”
Verizon made a similar statement and went a step further by pledging to donate to the cause. “The events unfolding across the country that are rooted in hate are contradictory with our beliefs as a company,” read a statement from Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg released on Monday. Vestberg said that the company’s foundation would donate a total of $10 million to seven social justice organizations. (The Verizon Foundation’s total charitable giving has been between $35 million and $65 million in recent years, according to tax documents.)
While the telecom companies side publicly with social justice activists, they are continuing their longstanding funding of a group that works to militarize local police, expand the use of warrantless surveillance, and promote policing policies that have disproportionately harsh impacts on communities of color.
Through their brands Verizon Connect and AT&T FirstNet, the companies are both “platinum partners” of the National Sheriff’s Association (NSA), a lobbying group that describes itself as “one of the largest U.S. law enforcement organizations.” The two largest U.S. telcos are among the most prominent corporations that partner with NSA. Verizon is also one of NSA’s three “diamond partners,” the group’s top corporate partnership tier, entitling it to a private dinner with the NSA Executive Committee. “This intimate setting will give you coveted time with the key policy makers within the organization,” a brochure reads.
NSA’s legislative priorities include making permanent a program that allows civilian law enforcement agencies to acquire weapons and equipment from the military that were designed for use on the battlefield. “NSA encourages the codification of the 1033 Military Surplus Program that provides lifesaving gear and equipment for law enforcement,” NSA’s website states.
Under the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, state and local police are able to obtain Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs), grenade launchers, helicopters, unmanned aerial and ground vehicles, bayonets, and other weapons of war. State and local law enforcement currently hold $1.75 billion worth of military equipment that they acquired through the program.
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In 2015, President Obama placed limits on the type of equipment that could be made available to police by an executive order, but President Trump reversed Obama’s order in 2017, allowing controlled military weapons to continue flowing into police departments. Codifying the program would prevent a future president from ending the program without an act from Congress.
Police have used the military equipment they acquired through the 1033 program heavily against communities of color. In a 2014 report, the American Civil Liberties Union found that the military arsenals acquired by police are used largely in the so-called “War on Drugs” and that 54% of the people impacted by SWAT teams employing military equipment and tactics for executing search warrants were black or Latino, the ACLU found.
The National Sheriff’s Association has spent more than $1.3 million on lobbying the government on issues including the codification of the 1033 Program since 2016, according to congressional records.
In 2012, Verizon outfitted a humvee that NSA acquired through the 1033 program with mobile technology. “Wireless connectivity allows them to access records and manage paperwork in the ﬁeld, tap into video surveillance prior to arriving at a crime scene, communicate with dispatch and more,” NSA’s says on its website about the partnership.
NSA’s legislative priorities also include opposing privacy advocates’ proposals for reforming the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a federal law that allows police to obtain domestic communications records from companies like AT&T and Verizon without a warrant. “NSA recognizes the increasing threat that ‘going dark’ has on their ability to effectively and efficiently obtain potentially life-saving digital materials,” its website states. NSA describes ECPA as “an essential piece of legislation that seeks to ensure that telecommunications companies properly work in collaboration with law enforcement.” In its past lobbying on the issue, NSA urges lawmakers not to limit their access to communications data and questions whether the premise that its partnership with the telecoms invades peoples’ privacy.
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Through its Project C—also known as Hemisphere—AT&T maintains and analyzes billions of domestic and international call records that pass through its networks and makes information available without a court order to the Drug Enforcement Agency and other several law enforcement organizations.
During the 2016 protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, NSA employed crisis communications consultants to create talking points to discredit protesters, including that many were “out of state agitators” with ties to George Soros, according to a report from MuckRock based on emails obtained through an open records request. NSA was also “the central organizing vehicle which brought hundreds of out-of-state cops to Standing Rock,” according to the report.
Sludge reached out to Verizon and AT&T about their partnerships with the National Sheriff’s Association, but neither company responded by the time of publication.
Some members of Congress have recently renewed calls for Congress to pass legislation to repeal or amend the 1033 program. Since March 2019, a bipartisan bill to place restrictions on the program, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, has been pending in Congress, but the House Armed Services Committee to which it has been referred has yet to act on it. The committee is chaired by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wa.), a top recipient of campaign funding from the defense industry, which benefits from sales made under the 1033 program.
Several of the organizations that Verizon pledged to donate to, including The Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, National Urban League, and NAACP, recently sent a letter to Congress calling for the end to the 1033 program, among other legislative measures addressing abusive police practices.
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