Should police be in the business of turning ordinary people–usually naive young men–into criminals? Two recent stories about crimes of varying severity, and perpetrators evoking different levels of sympathy should raise questions about the value of undercover operations.
Justin Laboy, an 18-year-old high school senior in South Florida, fell head over heels for a charming young classmate. They texted in class, he asked her to prom, and even serenaded her in front of the school. But there was something peculiar. She urged her new beau, who was not a drug user, to find her some marijuana.
The lovestruck Laboy obliged, and sold it to her, after she insisted on paying him. Then the mask slipped: she wasn’t a new student, but a 25-year-old undercover police officer. Once on the honor roll, Laboy now has a felony conviction on his record, and faces an uncertain future.
Amine El Khalifi is perhaps not as easy to embrace. Born in Morocco, he first came to the United States when he was 16 and overstayed his visa. Now 29-years-old and unemployed, he is still in the country, though he has apparently come to despise it. So much, that he is accused of seeking help to blow up the US Capitol building. That help came in the form of undercover FBI agents, who provided El Khalifi with an unusable gun and explosives. On February 17, the FBI decided the plot had gone far enough, and arrested El Khalifi, causing a brief stir in the Washington metro area.
Though the crimes involved in each case are wildly different, they present us with the same problems. There is no evidence that either Laboy or El Khalifi would have done anything criminal if left to their own devices. The law enforcement officials they trusted as friends had given them the motivation and means to break the law.
Neither of these is an isolated incident. Laboy was one of 31 Florida high schoolers arrested as part of coordinated sting operations. The Huffington Post tallied up a slew of similar cases from across the country, including 19-year-old Robert Tester, who bought an iPhone from an undercover officer, then had cuffs slapped on him for receiving stolen property. Tester claimed that he sympathized with the officer, who said he needed Christmas money for his daughter.
There have been many other young men like El Khalifi as well. Groups with frightening monikers like the “Liberty City Seven” and “Newburgh Four” have turned out to be marginally employed petty criminals, incapable of carrying out the sophisticated plots they were accused of. Many of these “terrorists” may indeed hate America, but the beautiful thing about this country is that you’re well within your rights to despise it – as long as you don’t do anything violent.
Last year’s merchant of terror, 27-year-old Jose Pimentel, was so poor he couldn’t pay his cell phone bill. Yet we’re led to believe that without the help of another undercover agent (this time with the NYPD), he would have been able to purchase and use the equipment to construct pipe bombs.
Whether targeting terrorism, drugs, or stolen property, these sorts of stings are an intricate form of “security theater.” They provide evidence that law enforcement is making us safer by ridding the streets of drug dealers or domestic terrorists. But are we genuinely better off now that a few high schoolers sold drugs to an undercover cop? That poor, disillusioned, and mentally unstable men get tricked into talking about plans they couldn’t possibly have carried out?
Clearly, these undercover operations have substantial effects on the people caught in them and their families. In the long run, though, they may harm all of us. High-profile cases make the world seem a terribly dangerous place, justifying expensive and extensive Wars on Drugs and Terror.
Clouded by fear, we are inclined to cede money and authority to people promising safety, without actually being any safer.
The FBI alone spends slightly over $3 billion per year on counterterrorism operations. Of course, the publicity associated with stings helps rationalize much larger bills, like $43 billion for the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, the federal government spends over $9 billion a year on drug-related law enforcement. States and cities spent another $25 billion per year in the War on Drugs, according to a 2008 estimate.
Undercover operations are partly a P.R. exercise to keep this money flowing, diverting our attention from the greater and trickier problems bubbling beneath the surface. Nearly a million people a year are arrested for non-violent drug-related crime in the United States. Anti-Americanism is rampant abroad, and increasingly at home, as concocted terror plots demonstrate.
Stings help shut off debate about how to respond, other than to close our eyes and sign the check. They make for pretty pictures on TV and colorful copy in the newspaper.
However, cop-created crimes don’t do anything to deter true criminals with the ability to do real harm. They also make it difficult for us to evaluate the dangers invoked by politicians in their stump speeches, and the promises they make to confront those dangers.
“If you see something, say something,” the post-9/11 mantra, has been ingrained in all of our heads as we came of age. We have been trained to view our neighbors with suspicion as we step on a subway or into an airport. But, we should pay similarly close attention to our police and legal systems to ensure that they are truly improving public safety.