by Graeme R. Newman with the Assistance of Kelly Socia
Sting operations have been part of the modern police response to crime for over 40 years, although artful deceptions and undercover operations have been part of police techniques for as long as policing has existed. The exploits of Jonathan Wild—who fenced stolen goods but also worked closely with London police as an informer in the early 18th century—are well known 1. Since their introduction in the United States in the 1970s 2, modern sting operations have been justified as an effective, less coercive way not only to catch criminals, but also to collect the necessary arrest and conviction evidence, thus avoiding the difficulties or even the necessity of obtaining an offender’s confession.
The private sector conducts many stings (extent unknown), and even police departments sometimes contract them out to private companies. Stings private companies conduct are especially common in the retail industry in investigating employee theft and shoplifting, and in manufacturing to investigate trade-secret theft. This guide does not review such private-sector stings. Police also commonly use crackdowns and sweeps in conjunction with sting operations, sometimes to the point where they seem to merge with the sting. This is especially common in sting operations against street prostitution. Another response guide reviews crackdowns and sweeps (Response Guide No. 1, The Benefits and Consequences of Police Crackdowns), as do the relevant problem-oriented guides (see, e.g., Problem-Specific Guide No. 2, The Problem of Street Prostitution). This guide also does not include details of how to conduct a sting operation. There are well-established procedures dealing with recordkeeping, evidence collection, wiretapping, budgeting, and many other technical and legal details 3. This guide is intended to help you decide whether a sting operation would be right for you, not about how to mount a sting operation.
Many stings, though not all, end up with a crackdown, that is, a sudden and dramatic increase in police officer presence to make the mass arrests that complex sting operations often require. For example, officers may have posed as drug dealers over time, which may culminate in the identification of many suspects, resulting in a police crackdown. However, not all crackdowns are linked to stings, such as the sudden and visible police patrol in a known vice area, which may be routinely repeated. In this case, there is no deception involved, and police may or may not make arrests (see Response Guide No.1, The Benefits and Consequences of Police Crackdowns.).
When stings were first introduced to U.S. policing operations, they were confined to the popular, and often complicated, setup of false storefronts designed to deal in stolen property, and targeted against fencing. Since that time, however, a wide variety of police operations have come to be called “sting” operations in common police practice. Now, hidden (or undercover) operations that target political or judicial corruption, target traffic offenses such as speeding and drunk driving, target prostitution, target car theft, target drug dealing, and target illegal sales of alcohol and tobacco to minors, are commonly referred to as sting operations. This guide takes a broad approach to include a wide range of crime types, and the different sting operations that target them.
Because sting operations cover a wide variety of crimes and use different techniques depending on the operation’s immediate or long-term purpose, it is difficult to define precisely what a sting operation is. However, with some exceptions, all sting operations contain four basic elements:
Sting operations may provide enticements for the targeted offender, such as offering a bribe to a politician suspected of corruption, or the opportunities may already be available, such as the presence of illegal drugs in open-air drug markets, the purchase of liquor by minors, or the hiding out of police in known locations where drivers exceed the speed limit. All of these examples assume that the offenders are “willing” offenders, but as we will see below, when police construct situations in which they offer people opportunities to commit a crime, such as to buy stolen goods, it is not always clear that they are willing; or at least the sting operators manipulate their willingness†. However, the clearest, defining feature of sting operations nowadays is that there is a point that ends the operations with a “gotcha,” when police suddenly reveal themselves and catch the offender “in the act,” often on video or audio recording devices. Catching offenders in the act is a very persuasive feature that impresses juries, who typically return guilty verdicts even though an element of deception is often involved.
Depending on the type of crime that is targeted or the purpose of the sting operation, the amount of deception police use may vary from none to a lot. In general, when there is much deception, the sting operation is highly complex and conducted over a long time—sometimes years—and requires police to take on various disguises and roles in dealing with suspects. When sting operations are concluded, they usually result in many arrests of high-profile people, accompanied by local and national publicity.
The amount of deception is partly defined by the extent to which police create the situation that snares the offender ††, or whether police exploit situations that already exist in order to catch offenders in the act †††. The latter are more typical of low-deception operations, which are usually conducted as part of a crackdown and so are mostly of short duration. They may be accompanied by some local publicity both before and after the sting and are targeted at known offenders, or places where offenses are commonly committed (e.g. a speed trap or known vice location). And they will result in mass arrests and charges.
† Assessing the offender’s willingness is closely tied to the police officer’s or surrogate’s use of deception. It is also the point that defense lawyers target in defending their clients. See below on the “entrapment defense.”
†† In an extreme example of creating a crime, the New York City Police Department planted unattended bags in various locations in the city’s subway system. They waited for people to take the bags, then arrested them (New York Times' Editorial, March 6, 2007).
††† In an example where police exploited a situation in which the enticement to commit a crime already existed, police stationed an officer in the courtroom where drivers had their driving licenses revoked. This was communicated to an officer outside in the parking lot, who promptly arrested any person whose license had been revoked if he or she entered a car to drive away (Holderness 2003).
The creation of the opportunity for offenders to commit a crime may vary according to circumstances. In some crimes, such as selling alcohol to minors, the opportunity is usually already there, and it takes little police effort to send in a juvenile surrogate to induce the illegal sale. In varying degrees, this also applies to prostitution, where a police officer may be disguised either as a client or as a prostitute to invoke a crime that can be clearly represented as “caught in the act.” Its use for this crime is popular because it is often difficult to obtain the necessary evidence to prove the details needed to gain a conviction for an offense such as prostitution. In very complex stings where deception is used for long periods, offenders who are already known or suspected are snared along with new offenders who also take the bait. In these cases, police may use known offenders as surrogates to snare new offenders.
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