One year ago, the Atlanta City Council signed off on a new training ground for the city’s police officers and firefighters, costing $90 million and to be built across 85 acres just outside the city limits.
The major driving force behind the facility is the Atlanta Police Foundation — the nonprofit leasing the land, spearheading the project and contributing two-thirds of the money for its construction.
For most of its existence, the foundation has operated quietly and avoided public controversy. The ongoing debate over the training center, though, thrust the nonprofit into the spotlight and raised questions about its reach.
The training campus will be one of the biggest in the United States. And the foundation is one of the most powerful such organizations in the country, acting as a key conduit between City Hall and corporate suites on issues of crime and public safety, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found.
The AJC analyzed the latest tax filings of police foundations in nearly 20 other large cities. None reported having as many employees or as large a board of private-sector leaders. Nobody was paid as much as Dave Wilkinson, the Atlanta Police Foundation CEO, who also earned more than Atlanta’s mayor and police chief.
Only New York City’s police foundation raised more money in 2020 — and that was before Atlanta’s fundraising roughly tripled in 2021. Among the roughly dozen foundations that sought federal Paycheck Protection Program loans during the pandemic, none received as much funding as Atlanta’s.
The Atlanta foundation’s public safety efforts range far and wide. It has led a push to expand the city’s surveillance camera network, built several youth centers and runs a housing program for officers, among other programs.
“We wouldn’t be the police department we are today if it weren’t for the police foundation and its donors,” said Darin Schierbaum, the Atlanta Police Department’s interim chief, who joined APD in 2002, the year before the foundation was started.
Not everyone is convinced that’s a good thing.
At rallies opposing the center, many activists trained their ire on the foundation. One afternoon in June 2021, protesters smashed the windows of the foundation’s downtown offices and sprayed graffiti on the building, police said.
The opposition followed racial justice protests in 2020 as more people questioned traditional policing strategies and some called for redirecting police funding to other public safety initiatives. Amid an uptick in violent crime, APD’s budget instead has continued to rise since then, climbing 7% last year and another 2% in the current fiscal year, to $235 million.
Foundation officials and supporters say the nonprofit makes the city safer by funding creative crime prevention tools that might not otherwise fit in the city’s budget. The foundation also has pushed for some police reform efforts including body-worn cameras for officers and the “21st Century Policing” model that encourages de-escalation training and building better bonds with local communities.
Mayor Andre Dickens praised the foundation as an “an indispensable organization” with “best-in-class resources and strategic thinking.”
But critics say the organization extends the reach of corporations into the city’s public safety efforts and warrants additional oversight.
“They’re one of the least scrutinized, most powerful actors in Atlanta,” said Micah Herskind, a public policy associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights. The foundation, he added, “has really direct outcomes for people’s lives in a way that we should be able to trace back how and why this is happening.”
More than the training center
The police foundation model, which began in the 1970s in New York City, involves raising private dollars through a nonprofit to bolster police budgets.
In the early 2000s, foundations similar to New York’s were replicated across the country. Now, dozens of police foundations in cities large and small provide equipment, technology or additional training for their local departments.
The Atlanta Police Foundation receives millions in donations from local corporations, nonprofits and some individuals, raising over $28 million last year. Several corporate titans sit on its 50-member board of directors, including the leaders of Waffle House and the developer Portman Holdings. Many of metro Atlanta’s largest companies, including Cox Enterprises, which owns the AJC, have contributed financially to the training center and the foundation, either directly or through their philanthropic arms.
The foundation says it works with city and community leaders to devise solutions to various public safety issues, and then pursues the private funding to achieve them.
It doesn’t dictate the day-to-day actions of the city, but “the police and City Hall are telling us what they need,” said Robin Loudermilk, the foundation’s chairman and CEO of local real estate giant The Loudermilk Companies. He said the training facility was borne out of the city’s desire for a new campus for officers and firefighters, and the foundation was tasked with leading the effort.
“Every elected official that comes in, the mayor and the City Council, supports the police foundation because they see the value that it adds to the city,” Loudermilk said.
Schierbaum said he meets regularly with Wilkinson and the foundation’s board. Wilkinson, who also served on Dickens’ mayoral transition team, has been a fixture for years at local events and press conferences focused on public safety. He has headed the foundation since 2005, after serving in U.S. Secret Service leadership roles for 22 years.
Wilkinson also has been a consistent voice on issues of police morale and the city’s support of its officers, especially during the turmoil of summer 2020, when protests filled the streets following the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks. The foundation announced it was giving all of the city’s officers a $500 bonus, to thank them for working long hours.
The foundation assisted in former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ criminal justice reform plans, with Wilkinson telling the Atlanta Business Chronicle in June 2020 that it would “raise a great deal of money in an effort to make sure social and police reforms are put in place.”
Credit: Atlanta Police Foundation
Credit: Atlanta Police Foundation
It took on a more active and public role at City Hall during the saga over the training center in 2021. Before the council voted to lease the property to the foundation, its leaders, including Wilkinson, heavily lobbied councilmembers amid intense pushback from some activists and residents.
While many other police foundations across the country fund existing police department initiatives, Atlanta’s starts and operates many of its own programs. The majority of its expenses go toward those initiatives, internal audits show.
Earlier this year, to enable more officers to live in the communities they serve, the foundation opened an apartment complex for new recruits, and it builds homes on blighted lots in the city to sell to officers. About 75 officers or recruits now live in housing funded by the foundation, 28 of whom are in single-family homes.
It also helped grow the police department’s expansive surveillance camera network, providing funding for 80% of APD’s “Video Integration Center,” named in honor of the Loudermilk family, which pledged $1 million toward the center. Atlanta has since been ranked the “most surveilled city” in a recent study.
The foundation built and operates three “At-Promise” centers for youth across the city, aimed at being a crime diversion program. One night in May, police said, “four Molotov cocktails and an incendiary device” were thrown into one of those centers as controversy over the training center raged.
The nonprofit was also instrumental in launching a repeat offender tracking unit that spans multiple local jurisdictions.
In 2020, it raked in $9.5 million in contributions, the second-highest revenue for a police foundation nationally, behind only New York, which tallied over $11.5 million in revenue. Other than the Los Angeles Police Foundation, which made over $7.5 million in 2020, no other group made more than $5 million.
Atlanta’s police foundation adheres to state and federal laws for its tax filings, and it posts yearly audit reports on its website that provide more details on its expenses and finances beyond the legal requirements.
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
But because police foundations are private nonprofits, they do not have to file detailed reports listing their donors. That’s a concern for critics who argue that on such an critical and often-politicized issue as policing, it’s important for the public to know exactly from where money is flowing.
“We believe we should restructure public safety in total, and shine a light on all of these things that the police foundation does to maintain its political will,” said Richard Rose, the president of the Atlanta NAACP.
CEO salary, government loans stand out among peers
According to the latest available tax filings, no American police foundation executive earned more in 2020 than Wilkinson, the AJC’s review showed.
That year, the foundation leader made a base salary of $407,500, plus a $40,000 bonus. On top of that, he was granted $12,000 in retirement or “deferred” compensation and another $7,200 in additional benefits, tax records show.
By comparison, the New York City Police Foundation paid its president $336,000 in 2020, according to its tax filing. The executive director of the Los Angeles Police Foundation made $173,000 that year.
Wilkinson was given a roughly $150,000 raise from 2019 to 2020, tax records show. Loudermilk said Wilkinson was integral to the foundation’s growth, and the board determined he had been “way underpaid” compared to top executives at other large Atlanta-area nonprofits, some of whom make over $500,000 annually, records show.
Wilkinson’s raise went into effect at the beginning of the 2020, a few months before the pandemic hit and the foundation sought a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program — a nearly $1 trillion forgivable loan program aimed at preventing small businesses from going under and laying off workers.
Of the police foundations reviewed by the AJC, none got as much federal support as Atlanta’s during the pandemic.
Credit: Christina Matacotta
Credit: Christina Matacotta
The Atlanta Police Foundation applied for a PPP loan in April 2020 and received about $256,000, records show. It received an additional $214,000 in 2021.
It said it would use the funds to pay employees, with the loan amounts reflecting the foundation’s payroll costs. An internal audit later mentioned “economic impacts” as fundraising events were canceled.
The only other police foundation to receive a PPP loan over six figures was the San Diego Police Foundation, which got about $210,000 over two years.
In tax documents the Atlanta Police Foundation reported having 29 paid employees through 2020, including full-time and part-time staffers. Its staffing typically hovers between 17 and 24 full-time employees, a spokesman said.
On its PPP loan application in 2020, the foundation said the loan would support 50 employees. A spokesman said that total included off-duty officers who were paid for patrols funded by the nonprofit.
With the permitting process for the training center underway, a new state law passed unanimously by the state Legislature earlier this year could further boost the foundation’s coffers.
The “LESS Crime Act” provides Georgians with tax credits for donations made to local law-enforcement foundations, capped at $3 million for each organization. The money has to go toward increasing officer pay, hiring additional officers or improving training.
“Think about the message this sends to every police officer,” Wilkinson told a state Senate committee in February, “about how we support them.”
— Staff writer Tyler Estep contributed to this report.
Every year, nonprofits are required to file public reports with the IRS listing their revenues and expenses, as well as details like their board of directors and how much their top employees are paid. The AJC analyzed the latest tax filings of the Atlanta Police Foundation and similar organizations in nearly 20 other large cities. The data showed that since Atlanta’s foundation was formed in 2003, it has grown into one of the most powerful American police foundations, hiring more employees and raising more private-sector dollars than peer organizations.