Billionaire Creates Charity to Donate $1M to San Francisco Police Department

June 11, 2024
A crypto billionaire has set up the San Francisco Police Community Foundation "to improve police officer wellness on the job and support community engagement with benefits in local neighborhoods."

Last week, in an unassuming conference room at the San Francisco police's Northern Station, a small army of officers and civilians began deliberations over a question not often associated with local government:

What should we do with all this free money?

Perhaps $20,000 could help fund the annual Christmas toy drive, Capt. Jason Sawyer said. Another portion could be earmarked for therapeutic sessions in ice baths, another officer suggested. Maybe, Sawyer said later, the station could also buy a large barbecue pit trailer for community events.

The sudden windfall will come from a new charitable organization set up by Chris Larsen, the San Francisco billionaire who has been a prolific donor for police and public safety projects.

Larsen, co-founder of crypto company Ripple, has funneled $1 million into the San Francisco Police Community Foundation "to improve police officer wellness on the job and support community engagement with benefits in local neighborhoods," board members said in a letter announcing the donation to San Francisco Police Chief William Scott.

Each of the Police Department's 10 district stations will receive $100,000 to spend on equipment or programs that serve those purposes. The money isn't intended to be used on weapons, and like all police donations over $10,000, spending must be approved by the Board of Supervisors and the Police Commission.

The San Francisco Police Community Foundation's board will oversee the cash flow to the Police Department.

"The city has a big budget, but just getting a small amount of that budget for something that will bring the police together with the community can just be incredibly bureaucratic and hard," Larsen said in an interview with the Chronicle. "This can shorten that process to get things going. And that's good for everybody."

The new foundation comes at a moment when San Franciscans, fed up with property crimes and open-air drug dealing, have shown a willingness to empower local law enforcement agencies. Mayor London Breed and various city supervisors are looking to address public safety concerns by ramping up police hiring, and voters in March passed a proposition that would make it easier for police to chase a suspect by car and use technologies like drones and surveillance cameras.

Public sentiment seems to have shifted significantly from four years ago, when a national reckoning over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd prompted protests and calls to defund the police in San Francisco and around the country.

Larsen described the anti-police movements of 2020 as an overcorrection that tanked officer morale and damaged public safety. He compared it with another police movement on the other end of the spectrum — the "tough-on-crime" laws created as a reaction to '90s-era violence, which overcrowded jails and prisons and disproportionately harmed people of color.

"We just keep going back and forth — three strikes, defund ..." Larsen said. "Hopefully now this is getting back to a good, pragmatic place."

Larsen, who has also footed the bill for more controversial police tools like a citywide network of surveillance cameras, expects little pushback over his latest gift. It's partially based on the model of another Larsen-backed program called Avenue Greenlight, a philanthropy that doled out $50,000 in grant funding to each of San Francisco's 34 merchant associations.

Aside from signing the check, Larsen is taking a hands-off approach to the foundation. While the gifts are intended to promote officer wellness and community outreach, each station has a wide berth to spend the money how it sees fit.

It's a different model than typical grant funding, Sawyer said, which often requires spending on specific training or equipment.

"What we do at (the Northern District Station), I don't expect Central or Mission or Ingleside to replicate it," he said. "We recognize, through this foundation, that maybe one size doesn't fit all."

The charity's board members are a cross-section of leaders from both the city's nonprofit and business sectors, including representatives from the University of San Francisco, the educational nonprofit Five Keys, the Golden State Warriors, the Union Square Alliance and violence prevention organization United Playaz.

The stations are asked to submit an itemized wish list to the board by the end of July, though they can also choose to pocket some of the funding for a later date.

San Francisco Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone said Monday that while he was not yet familiar with the new foundation, commissioners in general will check for any conflicts of interest between the donor and police, and overall legitimacy of the gift, before approving any donation.

Larsen said he hopes the foundation will show proof of concept in this first year, and ultimately attract other deep-pocketed donors.

"The hope here is this, this starts looking successful, improving public safety and community outreach, and then other philanthropists start contributing to it, (as well as) other companies that have a stake," Larsen said. "Because that's good for everybody. That's ultimately how this has to work."


(c)2024 the San Francisco Chronicle

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