In late September, The Ringer published an article titled “The Political Donations of NBA Owners Are Not So Progressive,” an analysis of publicly available donation records from NBA owners since 2015. As its headline would imply, the results show that in the 2020 election cycle, 80% of NBA owner political donations went to support the Trump campaign and Republican associated super PACs. While the results may be unsurprising, this information provides some context behind NBA and team sponsored efforts to address the growing pressure from fans and players alike to make an impact on social justice causes.
But while the majority of owners gave to Republicans, the dollar amounts were more split even between the two parties, due to a massive $7,936,914 in contributions from Steve Ballmer. The wild and enthusiastic LA Clippers owner, former Microsoft CEO, and 9th richest man in the world has been a recent avid supporter of liberal issues such as gun control, police reform, and voter registration. Steve Ballmer, along with his wife Connie, have donated more than $300 million to various causes through their philanthropic foundation, the Ballmer Group, with an emphasis on giving back to communities of color. One nonprofit president went as far as to say: “We know our city could be so much better off if we had 1,000 Steves and Connies to understand the conditions in our city, especially for Black folks around equity.”
With liberal-leanings, incredible generosity, and a community oriented approach, fans may have been asking themselves: is Steve Ballmer the ideal NBA owner? It may seem so, as in addition to their Republican support, NBA owners like the Detroit Pistons’ Tom Gores find themselves in recent headlines criticizing his exploitative prison telecom firm. And it’s certainly a stark contrast with former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was ousted from the league due to leaked racist comments, which gave Ballmer the opportunity to purchase the team in the first place. Would the world be better if we had—if not 1,000—thirty Steve Ballmers? Unfortunately though, when one takes a closer look at the initiatives and moves of the Ballmers and their foundation, the impacts on the cities of Los Angeles and Inglewood are a bit more complicated than their donation figures and partisanship would indicate.
In this two-part piece, we’ll look into two of Steve Ballmer’s recent political efforts. First, we’ll examine how the Ballmer Foundation’s seemingly progressive police reform efforts around community policing has actually allowed the LAPD to expand their police force- and ignore the criticisms from the community. And in part two, we look at how Ballmer’s ambitious plans for a new Clippers arena will critically alter everyday life of working-class families in the city of Inglewood.
When the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in the middle of the playoffs as a response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the onus was suddenly on the NBA’s owners to respond and address player demands that the league do more than just paint “Black Lives Matter” on the courts. As the players met internally and prepared for negotiations, LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer released a statement aligning himself as an ally for change and accountability:
I am again angry over the shooting of a black man #JacobBlake @DocRivers and The @Bucks players said it well We need real police accountability. Give citizens data to do so. Let’s have criminal justice reform that keeps all people safe but not senselessly imprisoned or afraid— Steve Ballmer (@Steven_Ballmer) August 27, 2020
Now is the time to research and vote for the mayors, council people, commissioners, legislators, governors, judges, prosecutors, and attorneys general who can make it happen. Now is the time to workout a bipartisan national police reform starting with the bill from @RepKarenBass— Steve Ballmer (@Steven_Ballmer) August 27, 2020
Even before the players’ work stoppage, Ballmer has been outspoken in his support for police reform. He endorsed HR 7120, or the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act”, legislation introduced by House Democrats which would limit qualified immunity, make it easier to investigate and charge law enforcement officers, and establish requirements for implicit bias training and body cameras. Ballmer publicly called on CEO’s and companies to do more to combat racism, and committed to opening The Forum, a concert and events venue in Inglewood recently purchased by Ballmer, as a voting center.
Meanwhile, far from the NBA bubble, the political leadership in the city of Los Angeles was under pressure as well. Like in many cities that summer, there were more than two weeks of protests and demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd, as well as the countless violences perpetrated by the city’s LAPD, and the LA County’s Sheriff Department. The police response only escalated violence further, as protestors and journalists alike were on the receiving end of tear gas, rubber bullets, and other rampant abuses. The National Guard was deployed and the city enacted curfews in an attempt to regain control of the situation. Throughout the weeks of unrest in the streets, communities and activists made their demands clear: the city of Los Angeles needed to defund their police department, and reallocate money to critically underfunded community resources and services.
Pressed to respond, LA city council voted in June to cut $150 million from the LAPD, reversing what would have been a $120 million increase in the annual police budget, redirecting the funds to job and youth programs, and reducing city furloughs. Mayor Eric Garcetti also announced plans to establish a Civil and Human Rights Department, and a moratorium on the LAPD’s controversial gang database. Reception of these actions were mixed; community activists recognized the symbolic significance of the cut, but demanded more. While the protests may have slowed down, community members took to calling into city council and police commission meetings, launching Twitter and social media campaigns aimed at calling for further defunding.
A month later, in response to criticisms that the city had not done enough to reallocate money to community services, Mayor Garcetti announced the formation of the LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership (CSP) bureau. This new bureau under the LAPD, would improve interactions between law enforcement and community members through utilizing a strategy of community policing, and also offer social and community programs. For the city, it was an ideal political win; keep the LAPD and police union happy with new jobs and funding, and respond to the activists by directing funds to underserved communities. The best part about all of this? The city would have to pay for nothing, as the hiring of new officers, funding for social programs would all be covered through private donations. No more arguments on budget increases and how public funds are used, as the CSP would solely be funded by the city’s newest and greatest philanthropists: Steve and Connie Ballmer.
Before moving forward, it’s important to explain what exactly the CSP and community policing is- and why it isn’t the solution for police brutality. The Community Safety Partnership is a collaboration between the LAPD and the city’s public housing office- the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). Under this program, CSP police officers are placed in specific public housing sites and communities for an extended five year period, and are in charge of community programs and philanthropic efforts, like youth basketball leagues and back-to-school backpack drives. The mission and strategy behind the CSP is relationship-building between law enforcement and community members:
“The intention is to deepen community collaboration, as bureau Captain Tingirides explains, “It’s law enforcement working alongside the community, alongside our non-profit organizations and partners to address the concerns...The relationship building and the programming is really what’s needed and needs to be deepened at this time considering the narrative of what’s going on across our country.”
In the long-term, advocates of the CSP program believe that through developing community-based policing solutions, policing can be reformed beyond the public housing sites monitored by HACLA, and eventually change the entire LAPD for the better.
The history of the CSP program is intertwined tightly with the Ballmer Group. As a public program funded entirely by private funds, foundation support enabled the first CSP sites to be set-up in neighborhoods like Watts and Boyle Heights. The Ballmer Group was key in the CSP’s expansion, with an initial donation in 2017 to directly pay for officer salaries and overtime, community programs, and fund a research study to measure the impacts. The funding allowed a partnership to open in the Harvard Park neighborhood. Fast forward to 2020, and the Ballmer Group would make another generous $500,000 donation, paying for administrative and command staff which would allow the CSP to become its own bureau. Notably, the city has yet to devise a budget plan for the bureau, meaning that the LAPD community policing efforts- and by extension the police reform movement in Los Angeles- is solely supported by private funds from Steve and Connie Ballmer.
If you’ve been following various responses by policymakers in the wake of the summer civil unrest, then you’ve probably heard of community policing proposals similar to the CSP. Various cities have been quick to call for and/or propose new community policing initiatives. The Chicago Police Department recently launched a neighborhood policing initiative to get “officers out of their cars, and into the barbershops, beauty salons, and churches, and into the living room of our neighborhood.” In Madison, community policing and youth engagement was a top priority for candidates vying for the city’s chief of police position, and Iowa City’s police department released a comprehensive plan to restructure their department around the model of community policing. The theory is simple enough; get more cops into traditionally under resourced neighborhoods, have them build positive interactions and trust through offering services, and together law enforcement and residents will reduce crime.
Community policing initiatives continue to be proposed as an innovative, radical solution and an effective method of reform. It’s easy to get behind as well, and relatively non-controversial, satisfying both police unions and reformists by retaining officer jobs and increasing department budgets with the promise of an innovative and safer approach to law enforcement. Community policing receives bipartisan support; Barack Obama and Donald Trump have both voiced support for additional officers and building trust between communities and law enforcement. Generally, the idea that friendly police officers are good for the community is popular, as seen in viral videos of police playing basketball with kids, or taking a knee with protestors.
But while community policing initiatives might be feel-good and feel like a step in the right direction, they ultimately fail to address the critiques leveraged against law enforcement and the justice system in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the shooting of Jacob Blake, or the killing of Breonna Taylor. By prioritizing community relationship-building and the idea of a friendly-faced police officer, departments are conveniently sidestepping and ignoring the issues that sparked protests in the first place; racist police violence, harassment, surveillance, the lack of transparency and accountability for police officers, and the broader conditions that leave neighborhoods underserved and under resourced. How does a police-sponsored pizza party or football team enact real change?
Journalists Maya Schenwar & Victoria Law explain that instead of offering transformational changes as promised, community policing initiatives are used as justification to expand police presence in neighborhoods. That was certainly the case in New York City in 2015, when a thousand cops were added for community policing efforts, or in Chicago in 2017, as similar justification was used to hire fourteen thousand officers. Furthermore, Schenwar & Law argue that community policing fails in its goal, as communities of color continue to report racist harassment and feeling unsafe around police officers even after these initiatives begin. In many cases, police departments attempt to build relationships with community members to mobilize them to criminalize their own neighbors, or justify that surveillance or violent tactics are “community-approved” by talking with a select group, such as wealthy property owners or gentrifiers in a working-class neighborhood.
There’s a host of research on community policing because, despite the renewed interest, community policing is not exactly a new or innovative trend. The LAPD for example, started its Office on Community Policing in 1996. The concept first grew in popularity in the 1990s, and the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) was founded in 1994. Since then, a 2007 publication analyzing the impacts of COPS grants used to hire community-oriented police officers found “little to no effect on crime,” and numerous grassroots and activist organizations have been against community policing programs for years, arguing that these programs are ineffective in reducing police violence and only serve to expand police budgets.
Yet police reformists like the Ballmers might respond that while community policing programs like the CSP are by no means perfect, it’s still a step in the right direction in repairing years of mistrust between people and the police. Results may not be immediate, but one UCLA study concluded that progress is still being made in terms of trust and safety. The study played an important part in pushing the CSP forward, as media outlets highlighted the positive results, claiming a reduction in crime and community support from “clear majorities.” Adjunct Professor Jorja Leap, who directed the study, stood alongside Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti during the press conference announcing the expansion of the CSP, and spoke about the potential positive impact of the program. “If it is reducing crime and it is building relationships and, even though it’s got some improvements to make, residents actually support the idea of CSP, what’s the downside?”
However, if one browses through the 212 page report, along with another comprehensive study of CSP sites from the Urban Institute, it’s clear that politicians, the media, and Professor Leap are getting ahead of themselves. The program is riddled with problems, starting with it’s vague mission “to improve police-community relationships'', which has led to frustrations from community members and police officers alike on what CSP police officers are exactly responsible for. And while the LAPD claims the CSP is the “first of many bold steps to reimagine itself,” CSP officers selected for the program only receive “minimal up-front training,” (Urban Institute, p. 45) and are not required to learn any techniques or strategies for community development and social services. A CSP police officer then, is pretty much the same as any other LAPD officer.
As for the assertion that the CSP has effectively lowered crime “to a greater degree than mainstream law enforcement,” this data is contested as well. As mentioned before, previous studies demonstrate the limited statistical impact of community policing on crime and safety, and the author of the UCLA study’s section on crime data, Professor P. Jeffrey Brantingham has been mired in controversy as well. Brantingham is known for developing PredPol, or predictive policing programs that critics say uses racially biased data to target Black and Brown communities. His work and collaborations with police departments have been criticized by over 450 academic researchers, and Harvard-trained mathematician Cathy O’Neill has aptly pointed out that much of crime data is inherently flawed: “We don't actually collect data on crime, we collect the data that the police collect.” The data then, does not fulfill the criteria of good, accurate data on policing that Ballmer himself has demanded for.
While community policing initiatives might be feel-good and feel like a step in the right direction, they ultimately fail to address the critiques leveraged against law enforcement and the justice system in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the shooting of Jacob Blake, or the killing of Breonna Taylor.
Another excerpt from the UCLA study appears to contradict the assertion that the CSP were welcomed by the community. One section- quite politically- summarizes qualitative findings by stating the following: “While many residents are highly supportive of CSP, there are some who are not” (p. viii). For more complete context, here’s a longer quote from a community member in the report:
“You know, don’t say everyone loves CSP because NOT everyone loves CSP. There’s some people who think it’s a bunch of bull. There’s some people who are never gonna trust the police. And there’s some people who are waiting to be convinced. They’re waiting to see if the CSP sticks around or – once all the publicity goes away – then they go away” (p. 67).
The 2019 Urban Institute report contains examples that are even more damning:
“Residents observed and experienced harassment—particularly of Black boys and men—by CSP officers. Officers performed unprovoked pat-downs during outdoor birthday celebrations and gatherings and endangered residents by soliciting them to be informants. In addition, residents reported that such policing made them feel powerless because they felt they had no recourse or influence. One resident said, “Our voice is nothing when it comes to the police” (p. 17).
The example above might answer Professor Leap’s question: “What are the downsides?”
So why does the UCLA study- especially in sharp contrast with the Urban Institute study, which presents the results of the CSP sites as mixed to negative- continued to claim that CSP’s are working, despite presenting poor results and biased data? Let’s be clear about what’s happening here. While the Urban Institute executed an independent study, UCLA’s research was funded directly by the Ballmer Group. There’s a vested interest in promoting the CSP as a potential solution, editorialization and presenting data in a way that points to innovation, in spite of its limited results.
Finally, what about the CSP’s community programs and services? The programming was a key component and response to defund supporters, as if to show that slashing police budgets would be unnecessary and that the city was committed to supporting communities. But public housing staff actually argued that the CSP officers were actually spending too much time on youth programming, and also believed that local community organizations and/or nonprofits would be able to manage these programs better (p. 44). Furthermore, the size and scope of these programs are incredibly limited. A majority of the programs served children ages 8-14, leading to criticisms that the CSP was ignoring the needs of older youth and adults (p. 19), and the most populous site, Nickerson Gardens, only had three active programs in 2018 (football, soccer, and after school tutoring), serving only 100 youths.
There’s a reason why activists like Dr. Melina Abdullah from Black Lives Matter Los Angeles demanded that the city of Los Angeles defund the police. Support for the defund police isn’t as nearly marginalized or radical as one might perceive, as Los Angeles voters passed Measure J in November, legislation that would earmark 10% of the county’s budget for community investment instead of policing. A coalition of nonprofit and grassroots organizations surveyed individuals, analyzing results and proposed a “People’s Budget,” which argued for a reduction of the police budget and reallocation into housing security, mental health services, and public health.
But instead of taking these demands seriously as a way to improve the lives of those surveilled and targeted by the police on a daily basis, Los Angeles expanded a program that would hire more police officers and plan police-sponsored pizza parties. And Steve Ballmer’s role as billionaire philanthropist enabled it. Rather than directing millions of dollars directly to communities in need, Ballmer gave Los Angeles the opportunity to hire more police officers without impacting the city budget, and the positive PR that the mayor and LAPD so badly needed after a summer of political unrest and fiery criticism. One common demand- one that has even been supported by police officers- is that law enforcement should not be doing the job of social workers or mental health experts. Yet, that is exactly what Steve Ballmer has funded; community programs that put police officers in charge. As Dr. Melina Abdullah explains, “I don’t know how ‘Defund the Police’ was used to pour money into policing and then chartering a new bureau...We absolutely want the things that were raised- tutoring, field trips, recreation programs. I’m a mom, I want those things. But those services cannot and should not be offered by the police.”
Of course, Steve Ballmer and his foundation cannot solely shoulder the responsibility. In some ways, the CSP funding of $1.2 million only represents a tiny percentage of Ballmer’s philanthropic investing, some of which might possibly have positive benefits. But there’s an interconnected system at work, and Ballmer’s capital fed the political monster made up of networks and power players like city officials, academics, and police unions, all working against the protestors on the streets demanding radical change from their government. While people attempted to hold their police departments and city officials accountable, Ballmer gave Los Angeles an out, allowing the LAPD to appropriate the language of protestors, and claim, in some sick, ironic way, that the system that had perpetrated violence upon generations and generations was going to reimagine and transform itself through the guise of community policing. Steve and Connie Ballmer’s ideas on the justice system continue to be troubling, as they were major financial supporters of Prop 25, a seemingly progressive piece of legislation that would have ended cash bail in California, but would have controversially replaced the practice with racially biased algorithms that would use data to “assess” an individual’s danger to the public.
Because community policing continues to be a popular, bipartisan idea that ultimately does not upset the status quo or enact meaningful change, there are no major political consequences for Steve Ballmer for funding the police, only benefits. It’s a matter of public relations. Just like how the police departments stand to benefit from whitewashing their actions of brutalizing protestors, harassing youths of color, and evicting families, the NBA and Steve Ballmer get to donate some money and announce a partnership, and all of a sudden they’ve garnered an image of a generous and progressive ally for social justice. It’s why fans and players alike should not so easily accept the public statements, donation figures, or political contributions as an indicator of goodwill or potential social change. The players went on strike because they believed that the NBA was not doing enough to be proactive in their pursuit of racial equity and justice. And beyond the gestures and donations, they owners need to be pressured into doing much, much more.
Instead of taking these demands seriously as a way to improve the lives of those surveilled and targeted by the police on a daily basis, Los Angeles expanded a program that would hire more police officers and plan police-sponsored pizza parties. And Steve Ballmer’s role as billionaire philanthropist enabled it.
In November, Steve Ballmer joined a group of NBA players, coaches, and fellow owners on the NBA Social Justice Coalition Board. A response to the concerns brought forward by the players during the strike, the new board will “be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful and criminal justice reform.” It’s too early to say exactly what specific type of advocacy or programs will emerge from this effort, but it would not be surprising to see the coalition advocate for community policing. Michael Jordan made a high profile $1 million donation to the Institute of Community-Police Relations (part of the International Association of Chiefs of Police; a nonprofit professionals organization for police chiefs), and the Miami Heat (whose owner, Micky Arison, is also one of the governors part of the coalition) partnered with the Miami PD and nonprofit Dedication to Community (D2C) for a multi day training for officers on community policing methods and strategies. Both Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley used their national platforms on TNT to criticize the defund movement, and assert their support for community policing.
Despite the chants of Black Lives Matter, defund the police, and Say his/her/their Name!, the discourse of police reform in the NBA remains agonizingly stuck. It's because the question that is being asked continues to be wrong. The question isn’t “how can we improve relationships between people and the police?” or even “how can we stop crime?” Instead, we need to listen for the voices from the streets that have been constantly demanding and asking: how can we end police violence and remove law enforcement officers from our communities? How can we hold police accountable, and change the system permanently, for the better? How can we address structural racism and the lack of resources? Organizers, scholars, and activists have all been tirelessly working to come up with radical ideas and solutions. And until the NBA takes the moment to listen to these voices, their efforts for police reform will only be a meek PR effort and uphold and support the status quo of racist police violence.