A truck loaded with Nike Air Force 1 sneakers and Christian Louboutin shoes turned up in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago last week. It was a “bait truck” parked by Norfolk Southern Railway police, with assistance from Chicago Police, to lure thieves to their arrest. The truck traveled to more than one site in the predominantly black community on the city’s southwest side. Police arrested three people during the sting, which was intended to curb cargo theft in the area, according to Norfolk Southern.
An August 2 video shot by Charles Mckenzie of the crime prevention group God’s Gorillas captures residents confronting officers about the truck; it has made the rounds on Facebook, Instagram, Lipstick Alley, and the World Star Hip-Hop site.
Another video, shot by self-described “crime chaser” Martin G. Johnson, shows the bait truck at a different location the next day. In both videos, community members accuse officers of trying to set residents up to steal.
“In the recent past, individuals broke into parked freight containers in the Chicago area, stealing a range of consumer goods, to include guns and ammunition in transit,” Norfolk Southern spokesperson Susan Terpay said in an email to Vox. “Norfolk Southern has the responsibility to ensure the freight we are transporting is safely delivered and does not pose a risk to the communities in which we operate. This week’s police operation was intended to directly combat such unacceptable thefts.”
Terpay also denied allegations from community activists that police left the bait truck open. Video surveillance shows a man using box cutters to break open the safety seal on the unmarked trailer, she said, and additional footage shows two men finding the boxes of shoes, which were not visible from the street.
A Chicago Police spokesperson said that the department only assisted with enforcement of the Norfolk Southern sting. He directed requests from comment to the railway company. The Chicago field office of the FBI told Vox it would not comment for this story. But over the past decade, law enforcement agencies in the US have increasingly turned to bait devices to reduce crime.
Bait devices, be they unattended vehicles or packages, are intended to be stolen. Police typically leave them in high-crime neighborhoods in spots where thieves are most likely to take them. A parked bait car, for instance, would be left in an area where car theft is a problem. Bait devices are rigged with surveillance equipment and tracking devices so that authorities, usually waiting nearby, can quickly catch offenders who make off with them.
But as the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn widespread attention to anti-black policing and the disproportionate number of African Americans in prison, reports of a bait truck in an impoverished community of color have predictably sparked an outcry. The Englewood residents seen in video footage regarded it as another hostile act by law enforcement instead of a bid to cut down on crime. Moreover, the alleged placement of the bait truck near a basketball court filled with kids signaled, to some, a ploy to ensnare vulnerable youth in the criminal justice system rather than career criminals.
“There were a lot of young guys playing basketball,” according to Mckenzie, who said he spotted the bait truck while driving nearby. “Why would they do that in the poorest communities to people who don’t have anything better?”
Terpay denies that the bait truck was parked near a basketball court but couldn’t specify how far away the nearest court was from the trailer or whether area kids were playing basketball on a makeshift court of some sort. She said the men arrested ranged in age from 21 to 59, and juveniles were not targets of the operation.
Mckenzie said that many Englewood residents have nothing to lose, making the temptation of unattended cargo too great for many to resist. Englewood’s poverty rate is at least 40 percent, by some estimates, and more than 60 percent, according to others. While the community is known as a high-crime area, in 2017 shootings and homicides in the neighborhood dropped by 44 percent and 45 percent, respectively, the Chicago Tribune reported. Car theft also went down.
Mckenzie, 29, said that he had never before seen a bait truck in Englewood. But as cargo theft across the country becomes a growing problem, law enforcement agencies have used bait to catch thieves. Although they might reduce crime, critics wonder if “sting trailers” are simply creating crime, turning tempted bystanders who wouldn’t ordinarily steal into offenders.
Federal and local law enforcement agencies are using bait as a crime deterrent
Reports of bait trucks in Englewood might be rare enough to generate community outrage, but police have used bait devices there previously. An unsuccessful police operation using a bait car in Englewood even ended up on the since-canceled TruTV reality show Bait Car in 2012. Police may leave bait cars unlocked, place the keys inside, or leave packages inside to make them more alluring to thieves.
In the Bait Car episode that took place in Englewood, the car itself was the bait, but the thieves ended up taking the police surveillance equipment in the trunk rather than the vehicle. They managed to escape before the authorities could apprehend them.
In 2008, the Chicago Police Department made headlines for using a bait car to cut down on auto theft in high-crime areas. The city is not alone. Dallas police use bait cars to reduce auto theft, and Philadelphia-area police have used bait cars for several years too. In San Francisco, authorities use bait bicycles to deter bike thieves. Bait bikes have GPS tracking devices and are positioned in areas where they’re likely to be stolen. Authorities in other cities have used trucks, rigged with monitoring devices, to make bait out of UPS boxes, handbags, sneakers, food, beverages, and electronics.
The FBI reports that about $27 million in property was taken as a result of cargo theft in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. The federal agency defines cargo theft as the criminal taking of “goods, chattels, money, or baggage” included as part of a commercial shipment. Cargo is a wide category and can include an eclectic mix of goods — such as cars, bicycles, alcohol, apparel, food, livestock, drugs, electronics, and general merchandise. More than $732,734 of goods the FBI broadly categorized as “merchandise” was taken in cargo theft incidents in 2016, and more than $390,000 of apparel-related cargo was stolen.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program only began collecting data on cargo theft in 2012. The agency reports that cargo theft is on the rise and offenses may even pose a threat to national security. “Often cargo theft offenses are part of larger criminal schemes and have been found to be components of organized crime rings, drug trafficking, and funding for terrorism,” according to the FBI.
But the use of bait devices raises civil liberties concerns. In 2015, American Civil Liberties Union senior policy analyst Jay Stanley described to Mic how and why bait devices are supposed to be used.
“The basic criteria should be if police are trying to catch crime happening on its own, or are they trying to create crime where it otherwise wouldn’t happen,” Stanley said. “I don’t think a bait object — if used in the way everyone imagines it’s used, which is to catch a thief — is a civil liberties problem.”
Mckenzie, however, fears that bait operations could lead to the arrest of people without criminal records. He said that he watched officers arrest two people who attempted to steal from the bait truck last week. Their arrests and his belief that some shoes in the truck cost hundreds of dollars alarmed him.
“Anything over $500 is a felony, and they’re going to get some guys who don’t [already] have a felony and charge them,” he said.
The value of stolen property determines if a theft is a felony or misdemeanor. States establish their own thresholds for what constitutes felony theft. Illinois sets the bar for felony theft at $500, a conviction that can lead to a prison sentence of up to five years.
Entrapment law allows defendants who took bait to claim that the government turned them into criminals instead of merely giving them the opportunity to commit a crime. But in the 2015 Harvard Law Review article “Bait, Mask, and Ruse: Technology and Police Deception,” Elizabeth E. Joh, a law professor at the University of California Davis, said that the entrapment excuse usually isn’t successful.
“In practice, entrapment is a losing defense,” Joh argued. “For most courts, the conclusion that a defendant is criminally predisposed to commit the offense bars an entrapment claim even where the government’s temptations may be unrealistically attractive.”
Bait devices not only raise questions about entrapment but safety concerns as well. Police can disable a bait car if a suspect attempts to drive away in one. But last year, a Dallas police bait car kept going when a suspect stole it. This led to a car chase that ended in police shooting the perpetrator, leaving him in critical condition. Without the bait car, neither the chase nor the shooting would have occurred. The police department temporarily halted its bait car program after the incident but resumed it soon afterward.
Critics of bait devices argue that the stings fuel distrust of police
Whether local law enforcement agencies or their federal counterparts engage in bait stings, the potential to erode public confidence in policing exists, Joh asserted in her article “Bait, Mask, and Ruse.” The problem is that more often than not, such operations don’t target specific individuals but “amount to generalized ‘fishing’: attempts to find out if anyone will be tempted by the proper enticement,” she wrote. “Police are not bound by probable cause or reasonable suspicion requirements before they engage in a sting.”
Mckenzie, an ex-gang member who’s participated in anti-violence groups, predicts that the bait truck in Englewood will harm community-police relations. He doesn’t view all police officers negatively, he said, but using sting trailers gives the impression that the authorities are there to hurt the community rather than help.
“How do we supposed to trust Chicago Police if they setting us up like this?” Mckenzie asked. “How can we trust them?”