WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 24: Capitol Police dressed in riot gear watch as activists react to the Supreme Court's ruling in the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Court's decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health case overturns the landmark 50-year-old Roe v Wade case, removing a federal right to an abortion. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Since March 2020, billions of dollars have been distributed to cities and states across the U.S. as part of the federal government’s COVID-19 pandemic relief response. These funds largely come from two major money pots approved by Congress: $2.2 trillion through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, which was enacted under former President Donald Trump, and $1.9 trillion through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act, otherwise known as ARPA.

These federal funds were meant to help offset the economic burdens stemming from the outbreak. However, more cities and states have begun distributing precious COVID-19 relief funds toward items unrelated to public health care or services, while many places are at risk of running out of public funds to provide essential COVID-19 services such as free testing and vaccinations.

In some big cities, large portions of COVID-19 relief spending appear to be funding law enforcement, and most times, the exact nature of these police-related expenditures is opaque. The Oakland Police Department (OPD), for example, received $33 million in relief ARPA funds and $5 million in CARES funds. The OPD is expected to receive another $87 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds this year, bringing its total share to more than $120 million, or 64% of the total ARPA funds allocated to Oakland over the past two years.

The decision to move more federal relief money toward the department was not properly publicized, according to James Burch, policy director at the Anti Police-Terror Project, an advocacy group in Oakland.

“Buried in the quarter three finance report in some obscure table is just one line that says $87.1 million to the Oakland Police Department. And so obviously, that’s very concerning,” Burch told Prism (the same report shows that the OPD is the only city agency receiving money from its ARPA funds this year). 

There had not been any public hearings to deliberate on the city’s COVID-19 relief spending plans, and the Oakland City Council seemed unaware of the decision to allocate that amount of COVID-19 relief funds toward police, Burch said. 

According to an April report by The Guardian, other cities in California have also allocated large sums of COVID-19 federal relief money toward police departments, with at least two cities—Los Angeles and Fresno—dedicating more than 50% of their federal relief money to their police forces.

But it’s not just happening on the west coast. In Chicago, city council members last year were caught unaware that the city had allocated $281 million from its CARES funding to the Chicago Police Department, making up 60% of the $470 million in discretionary spending the city received from the federal government, as part of the relief funds. 

Similarly, in New York City, roughly $566 million of the city’s $3.73 billion in ARPA funds for the fiscal year 2022 had gone toward its police department, which already has the largest budget in the country. That $566 million is more than the amount dedicated to the Department of Social Services, Department of Homeless Services, and the Department of Youth and Community Development combined, based on data from the City Comptroller’s COVID-19 Federal Stimulus Fund Tracker. The Comptroller’s Office also tracks the spending of funding given to different agencies, but had no data displayed for spending by the police department and could not produce details when contacted for comment. Another public entity, the NYC Independent Budget Office, reports on their tracker only that $566 million was budgeted for “police staffing costs.”

Other U.S. cities, like Albuquerque and Tucson, are also spending smaller amounts of COVID-19 relief funds to support policing.

It is important to note, however, that these investments of federal relief money in law enforcement across the country did not happen in a vacuum. Since last year, Biden has repeatedly urged city and state officials to use federal COVID-19 relief funds for training, equipment purchases, and other law enforcement-related spending as part of the president’s so-called crime prevention strategy. Under the initiative, roughly $350 billion from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan relief package is expected to be used to bolster law enforcement nationwide.

“To every governor, every mayor, every county official, the need is clear, my message is clear: Spend this money now; use these funds we made available to you; prioritize public safety,” Biden said at a White House event with mayors and law enforcement officials in May. “Do it quickly before the summer, when crime rates typically surge.”

Biden’s calls for local officials to use pandemic relief funds for traditional policing tactics sparked criticism from anti-policing advocates. Karissa Lewis, the national field director of the Movement for Black Lives, called Biden’s requests a “slap in the face” to the millions of voters from communities of color and other underrepresented backgrounds who had voted in his administration in hopes of seeing more public care investments. 

“This is partly Biden’s mandate,” said Burch of APTP, referring to local governments investing COVID-19 funds toward police. “He not only allowed for this money to be spent on law enforcement, he’s encouraged it at certain times when it seemed to be politically advantageous for him to take that position. That’s not lost upon us.”

Increased policing is not the only investment unrelated to pandemic recovery that some cities and states have made using federal relief funds. In March, the Associated Press identified about a dozen projects and other expenditures not directly related to public health and services that were funded using pandemic relief money. These included $12 million for sports stadium upgrades in Dutchess County, New York; $6.6 million to replace golf course irrigation systems in Colorado Springs; $5 million to pay off debt owed by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston; and $8 million toward a tourism marketing campaign for the city of D.C.

A lot of these types of COVID-19 relief spending, the report noted, were possible due to the lax rules set by the U.S. Treasury Department over how local officials may use the COVID-19 federal funds. While the flexible guidelines were established to allow localities easy access to the pandemic funds and better freedoms in deciding how best to commit them, it may have opened the door for lawful misallocation of those funds, too.

“Counties should be able to determine what’s best for them,” Mark Ritacco, director of government affairs for the National Association of Counties, told the AP. “Their residents will decide whether that was appropriate or not at the ballot box.”

Natasha Ishak is a New York City-based journalist who covers politics, public policy, and social justice issues. Her work has been published by VICE, Fortune, Mic, The Nation, and Harvard's Nieman Lab...