Pubdate: Mon, 21 Jul 2014
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2014 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Brad Heath


91% of Those Locked Up Were Racial or Ethnic Minorities

The nation's top gun-enforcement agency overwhelmingly targeted 
racial and ethnic minorities as it expanded its use of controversial 
drug sting operations, a USA TODAY investigation shows.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has more than 
quadrupled its use of those stings during the past decade, quietly 
making them a central part of its attempts to combat gun crime. The 
operations are designed to produce long prison sentences for suspects 
enticed by the promise of pocketing as much as $100,000 for robbing a 
drug stash house that does not actually exist.

At least 91% of the people agents have locked up using those stings 
were racial or ethnic minorities, USA TODAY found after reviewing 
court files and prison records from across the United States. Nearly 
all were either black or Hispanic. That rate is far higher than among 
people arrested for bigcity violent crimes, or for other federal 
robbery, drug and gun offenses.

The ATF operations raise particular concerns because they seek to 
enlist suspected criminals in new crimes rather than merely solving 
old ones, giving agents and their underworld informants unusually 
wide latitude to select who will be targeted. In some cases, 
informants said they identified targets for the stings after simply 
meeting them on the street.

"There's something very wrong going on here," said University of 
Chicago law professor Alison Siegler, part of a team of lawyers 
challenging the ATF's tactics in an Illinois federal court. "The 
government is creating these crimes and then choosing who it's going 
to target."

Current and former ATF officials insist that race plays no part in 
the operations. Instead, they said, agents seek to identify people 
already committing violent robberies in crime-ridden areas, usually 
focusing on those who have amassed long and violent rap sheets.

"There is no profiling going on here," said Melvin King, ATF's deputy 
assistant director for field operations, who has supervised some of 
the investigations. "We're targeting the worst of the worst, and 
we're looking for violent criminals that are using firearms in 
furtherance of other illegal activities."

The ATF's stash-house investigations already face a legal backlash. 
Two federal judges in California ruled this year that agents violated 
the Constitution by setting people up for "fictitious crime" they 
wouldn't otherwise commit; a federal appeals court in Chicago is 
weighing whether an operation there amounted to entrapment. Even some 
of the judges who have signed off on the operations have expressed 
misgivings about them.

On top of that, defense lawyers in three states have charged that ATF 
is profiling minority suspects. They asked judges to force the 
Justice Department to turn over records they hope will prove those 
claims. Last year, the chief federal judge in Chicago, U.S. District 
Judge Ruben Castillo, agreed and ordered government lawyers to 
produce a trove of information, saying there was a "strong showing of 
potential bias."

Justice Department lawyers fought to block the disclosures. In one 
case in Chicago, the department refused to comply with a judge's 
order that it produce information about the stings. The records it 
has so far produced in other cases remain sealed.

Because of that secrecy, the data compiled by USA TODAY offer the 
broadest evidence yet that ATF's operations have overwhelmingly had 
minority suspects in their cross hairs. The newspaper identified a 
sample of 635 defendants arrested in stashhouse stings during the 
past decade, and found 579, or 91%, were minorities.

The ATF said it could not confirm those figures because the agency 
does not track the demographics of the people it arrests in stash-house cases.

That alone is troubling, said Emma Andersson, a staff attorney for 
the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project. "Management is simply putting 
its head in the sand," she said.

Other police agencies routinely collect that type of information to 
monitor racial profiling, and Attorney General Eric Holder said in 
April that the Justice Department would attempt to do so.

"It's not enough to say we're not purposely targeting young men of 
color," said Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo 
School of Law who has studied the ATF's tactics. "When you have a 
possibly discriminatory effect, it should still require you to go 
back and look at the structure of the operation," including where and 
how agents choose to conduct the operations.

ATF guidelines require that field supervisors and officials in 
Washington approve each stashhouse sting.

The ATF declined to explain how it selects the stings' targets, other 
than to say its agents rely on criminal records, police intelligence 
files and confidential informants to identify people already 
responsible for violent robberies. Still, court records raise 
questions about how and where those informants go about finding suspects.

In one case in San Diego, a government informant, identified in court 
records by the pseudonym "Tony," testified that he sometimes 
approached people on the street to see whether they wanted to commit 
a drug robbery. Which streets, defense attorney John Kirby asked.

"Different neighborhoods. I have targeted all kinds of areas," the 
informant replied.

"Do you do it in La Jolla?" Kirby asked, referring to the well-to-do 
seaside section of San Diego.

"I'm not familiar with La Jolla," he replied.

"Scripps Ranch?" Kirby asked, referring to another. "No." Kirby, a 
former federal prosecutor, said it was clear to him ATF informants 
were "trolling what was almost exclusively an African-American 
neighborhood, and there aren't a lot of those in San Diego." 
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