Deceptive letters ask locals to shell out cash for riot gear

By Claudia Yaw

The Chronicle

Letters recently sent out to Centralia addresses ask residents for money to help “local law enforcement” by providing them with riot gear, citing “the radical anti-cop and defund police movement” and “a new breed of ‘police haters.’”

But local law enforcement officials say they’ve never heard of the group — the United States Deputy Sheriff’s Association (USDSA) — which is a Kansas-based nonprofit once named one of “America’s worst charities.”

The letter announces a “national drive for America’s police and sheriff’s emergency equipment shortage” in Centralia, and features an outline of Washington state. This week, Centralia Police Department Chief Stacy Denham said he’s “never heard of them.” Chief Dusty Breen of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office said the same thing, noting that the department hasn’t received any aid from the group.

News reports across the country have recently published information on the same letters, with some departments warning residents of the deceptive solicitation. Charity Navigator, which evaluates nonprofits, gave USDSA an overall 26.93 percent rating in 2020, based on 2018 data. In 2013, the now decades-old nonprofit was rated number 18 in a list of “America’s worst charities” in a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Tampa Bay Times.

In the USDSA letter, Executive Director David Hinners tells residents, “I hope you’ll do your part by enclosing the most generous tax-deductible donation you can afford to help us keep our lifesaving equipment flowing to our men and women in law enforcement.”

In an interview with The Chronicle, Hinners said “some people have said this has been confusing, and we’re trying to word this down so it’s not confusing to anybody.”

“The mailing basically says we’re doing fundraising in that area. Doesn’t mean the money is going to that area,” Hinners said.

Hinners also said the organization has donated safety supplies to different sheriff’s offices across Washington, including the Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office, although Kittitas Inspector Chris Whitsett said he’s never heard of the group, and that he’s dealt with similar “pseudo-police support organizations” for years. He later confirmed that the department had, in fact, received appreciation cards from the organization in 2019, along with some first aid supplies, although “they were not supplies that we requested.”

The letters also come to Centralia in the wake of a local controversy over riot gear, which was added to the city’s budget in November. The $15,000 was eventually struck from the budget after public outcry largely centering around Denham’s comments — which he later apologized for — suggesting the department needed riot gear because “Centralia does have a lot of people of color coming to Centralia,” and that the department may end up shooting someone, sparking a riot, in the months after widespread Black Lives Matter protests following police killings across the country.

While Hinners said it’s “a shame” the department hasn’t been granted riot gear, he said mailers arriving in the wake of the controversy, asking residents to pitch in for the gear, “would have to be a coincidence.”

Even if USDSA did directly donate to CPD, Denham noted that he supported pulling the equipment from the budget, and wouldn’t want to circumvent public discourse about the issue by accepting equipment from an outside donor. He has said he wants to hear more input from the community on the matter, though the city council seemed poised to approve his initial request.

“The whole request for riot gear protection gear was something that I pulled from my budget so that we could have … a better conversation prior to making that purchase, and that’s where I’m at right now,” he said. “I want to make sure we have that communication with our citizens and our community before making that purchase.”

Breen, whose department is equipped with “a small quantity” of riot gear, said the office would also be wary of accepting any equipment that could militarize officers further.

“I don’t know that we’d necessarily need approval (from the county), but that’d be something we’d approach very cautiously, because we always think about things, what’s going to be the perception of it? And what’s the reasoning behind it?” he said.

Both agencies also reported that they were not experiencing any shortage in bulletproof vests, as the letter suggests.

“That claim may be true in some other areas of the United States, but certainly not here,” Breen said, noting that when entities do donate equipment, it’s generally through a collaboration with the department to figure out what item — radios or mounted modems, for example — are actually in need.