Few scientific studies of stings have shown that particular crimes were prevented long term. Where the relevant data were collected, it is commonly shown that the targeted crime was reduced as a result of the sting, but for only a limited period—at best, three months to a year. In fact, since most studies showing any extended crime reduction benefits of sting operations have also reviewed other police responses used with the operations, it cannot be concluded that stings, on their own, solve a recurring crime problem.
A number of well-conducted studies have shown that, contrary to expectations, sting operations may actually increase the targeted crime because they provide new opportunities to offenders to commit the crime when they use decoys, baits, and the actual selling or receipt of stolen goods.29 Furthermore, when police assume undercover roles, such as drug dealer, they may themselves be victimized, thus making possible new crimes that were not the sting’s target. This raises a serious ethical issue concerning the role of police (and government generally). The police role is to reduce crime, not increase it. If sting operations are found to increase crime, they are surely very difficult to justify, regardless of the benefits described above. However, at least one careful study found that sting operations did not increase crime in the two projects studied [PDF]. 30 This suggests that there is no hard-and-fast rule concerning the facilitating effects of stings on crime rates, and that the possible effects of each sting operation may be specific to crime type and location.
The ethical deficit of sting operations their detractors most often put forward is that their use of deception is simply another form of lying, and lying is morally wrong, period. And is it ethically worse if the deceiver holds a government office? Police defend their actions on two main grounds: (a) the moral and social benefits of a successful sting operation far exceed the ethical cost of using deception; and (b) citizens have given the police the right to use a degree of coercion to protect the community, and deception is “soft” coercion compared with other types police may use, such as tough interrogation techniques (which themselves may include lying and deceiving the offender).
Is it the government’s role to construct enticements and situations that encourage all citizens to commit a crime? The studies of selling stolen goods, for example, in bars and other places, have found a remarkably high proportion of ordinary people prepared to buy stolen articles, people who, had they not been provided the opportunity to do so, would not have committed the crime. Thus there is a very strong potential for the government to overreach. Indeed, there is a strong incentive to do so, given the positive publicity that is likely to follow the sting operation, even if no offenders were convicted.
The invasion of privacy is much greater in sting operations because police surreptitiously collect far more information about non offenders as well as offenders, and in many instances, where there are no offenders at all until the sting operation reaches a critical point. Do citizens have a right not to be spied on? This is an old ethical problem in policing that is intensified by sting operations that rely almost entirely on these tactics. 31
Of all the negative features of sting operations, entrapment is by far the most widely cited. This is because many of the ethical issues described above come together to form the “entrapment defense,” used by offenders to argue that the police tricked them into committing the crime. There are many legal tests for entrapment, and every U.S. state’s law recognizes the defense. While we need not go into the legal technicalities, there are two legal tests of entrapment: the “subjective” and “objective” tests, both of which take as their starting point that the government encouraged or induced the offense in question. The subjective test asks whether the offender had a predisposition to commit the act, that is, it focuses on the offender’s psychological state. The objective test asks whether the government’s encouragement exceeded reasonable levels, thus it focuses on the government’s actions in constructing enticements—whether it went “too far.”32 How each of these is assessed, of course, is the subject of legal wrangling, and may in the long run depend on a jury.
The popular—and more elaborate—stings require expensive props (storefronts, money up-front to make illegal purchases or pay informers, decoy cars, video cameras, eavesdropping equipment, and so on). Often police can obtain these by approaching businesses affected by the crime to help out. But there is also the greater financial cost of staff time—undercover work required in complex stings is very time-demanding and may take months or even years. Finally, there is considerable cost in time required to train officers in how to carry out a successful sting operation. Not included in the police budget, except for officer time in court, is the cost of the very lengthy trials that occur to gain sting convictions, since the entrapment defense is commonly used and has become extremely complex.
Sting operations’ major effect is immediate and temporary. Problem-solving policing focuses more on solving the big problem or problems that lie behind a specific crime—that is, reducing or eliminating the problem in the long term. Arrests, even massive arrests, rarely solve persistent crime and disorder problems. At best, they are a stop-gap measure. Stings are an attractive technique because they produce much positive publicity and impressive short-term results, as measured by many arrests. But on their own, they do not solve the underlying conditions of most persistent crime problems. Given that stings are very demanding of resources, they may usurp the use of other effective problem-solving techniques. This is not to say that you should never consider them. Depending on the specific situation, they may be useful in conjunction with other responses, a fact demonstrated by several studies in the Goldstein project database (appendix). On the other hand, an experimental trial of a sting in a specific location may be used to decide whether it will produce the required long- or even short-term results compared with other interventions. This was the approach the Lancashire (England) Constabulary used in their project to reduce theft from trucks using a bait vehicle [Full text ].33 They eventually abandoned the sting operation in favor of other responses.
Sting operations can be expensive, are demanding on personnel, and generally offer limited relief from recurring crime and disorder problems. This is not to say that they should never be used. They may be beneficial when used in concert with other police responses known to provide long-term solutions to the problem, such as a tool to collect information that will help in mounting other preventative operations. † Clearly, they do provide some attractive benefits to police departments, particularly by facilitating investigation, increasing arrests, and fostering a cooperative spirit between prosecutors and police, all of which result in favorable publicity. However, you need to assess these benefits against the negative ethical and legal problems associated with sting operations, especially the finding that in some cases they increase crime, and in the long term, with some exceptions, generally do not reduce it.
† In a well-designed evaluation of several parallel sting operations in Chicago; Detroit; Gary, Ind.; and other cities designed to reduce illegal handgun availability, researchers found a 46 percent reduction that lasted for the 12 months of the study in Chicago, where it was mounted combined with considerable pre-publicity and intensified enforcement (lawsuits, license suspensions) against gun dealers. Researchers also found diffusion of benefits in some adjacent locations. However, they found no effects in Gary, where there was less publicity and no targeted enforcement.
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