It’s comforting to think of law-enforcement as one big omniscient, omnibenevolent entity that has the bad guys on lock down. It’s comforting, and it makes the fact that you spend all day masturbating and eating Doritos seem like part of one just, lawful world. The reality, however, is of course the law enforcement is filled with lazy or vindictive people who care a lot less about making a just world and a lot more about keeping their job so they can go home and masturbate all day while eating Doritos. In the world of undercover ops, far from the public’s eye, all sorts of strange, twisted, and sometimes heartening things take place.
One strange fact to remember is that if there is a law for something, you better believe there is a unit bloated by early pensions and cirrhosis tasked with enforcing it. And despite the fact that everyone does it everywhere at just about any time, soliciting sex in a public place is still technically a crime. Still, no one is going to bust you for awkward fumbling over a girl in a bar, when she awkwardly fumbles back you’re supposed to at least have the decency to tell (lie to) your friends and say that “oh I’ll be back later I have to walk her home.”
So imagine you are this vice cop who’s had reports of travelers soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom. So you spend most of your days hanging out in an airport, trying to get hit on by sleazy old men. By now you’re about ready to hang yourself in said bathroom because your life has become a miserable abyss darker than any airport urinal. But then you’re fondling toes with the guy in the next stall and when you go to bust him he turns out to be nothing less than one of the most powerful men in the free world.
That’s what happened to some lucky vice cop when arch-conservative Larry Craig turned out to be soliciting gay sex in a public bathroom. Craig, who had quite the record of hating on homosexuals, tried to pass it off as a “wide stance." When you’re so far in the closet you’ll admit to the world you’re a fatass to try and get out of it, you’ve reached a new low.
The Wildlife Trafficking Ring
Going with the theme of if there’s a law, there’s an overbearing unit tasked with enforcing it, we come to the largest undercover wildlife sting in Mississippi history. Yeah you heard that right--wildlife--prepare to have your mind blown and your colon vacated.
As it turns out, catching random animals and selling them as pets is kind of illegal. And while cops have yet to bust down little Timmy’s door and arrest him for that garter snake he caught in the yard, apparently the illicit animal trade is a large underground business. For whatever baffling reason, some people catch hundreds of deer, alligators, beavers, you-name-it and for an equally baffling reason some people are willing to pay top dollar for these wild animals.
Well not in the state of Mississippi, no sir. The state spent several months and presumably several hundreds of thousands of dollars infiltrating this dangerous underbelly of the criminal world to obtain convictions on 15 of the worst kind of Bambi’s-mom-killing criminals. What heinous acts were these Corleones of Cougars, these Scarfaces of Squirrels, these Tarantinos of Turkeys perpetrating other than torturing puns? Well as Curtis Green, director of law enforcement for the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, put it "They were legally killing beaver here, where tails are worth about $5 but were turning them in in Arkansas, claiming they were killed there, and collecting a $10 bounty." Truly justice was served.
Joran Van Der Sloot
If you buy in to the missing white woman hysteria, you’re most certainly familiar with Joran van der Sloot, the chief suspect in the disappearance of Natalie Holloway. Van der Sloot, aside from having a name that sounds like a euphemism or something out of a German snuff film, was the last person seen with Holloway at an Aruban bar in 2005. He denied any knowledge of her disappearance and was eventually released...only to return after a media storm and several attempts to pin the crime on him.
Van der Slot claimed that for several thousand dollars, he would show the family the location of Natalie’s hidden body and tell them exactly what happened to her. Like any intelligent person in that scenario, the Holloways called the police, who caught van der Sloot on tape essentially committing fraud since, in a somewhat sick twist, the location he showed the Holloways ended up not containing Natalie’s body. Prosecutors let van der Sloot walk and instead trailed him for months, at the conclusion of which he promptly murdered another young woman in almost exactly the same fashion as he was suspected of having killed Natalie Holloway. The undercover operation was deemed “successful” in the sense that van der Sloot was finally put away for life. But that’s like saying it’s “successful” to get back at your ex-girlfriend by killing yourself.
The Irish Drug Lord
While some of these undercover operations are of a dubious methodology and necessity, every once in a while it helps to hear a story about the good guys nabbing some actually bad people. Such is the case with Christy Kinahan, known as one of the biggest drug dealers in Europe.
After years of being busted on relatively small charges and comfortably running his mutli-country empire from prison, presumably the Irish got together with Interpol and said “Let’s do it right this time, eh chaps?” A staggeringly huge undercover operation was launched to not just put Kinahan away, but totally dismantle his entire organization. More than 700 officers across Europe were enlisted and in May of 2010, dozens of Kinahan’s assests were raided, resulting in the arrest of several dozen high ranking members of his organization and the seizure of millions of dollars worth of assets. While the War on Drugs will most likely never be won, sometimes it’s nice when the murderous douches that pull the strings get their comeuppance.
Mr. Big does not refer to any single undercover operation, but instead a method used by the Canadian police to trick suspects into confessing. The scenario goes that a suspect would be approached by a “gang” that was actually a staff of police officers. They would use increasingly violent criminal acts (all staged) to convince the suspect that they were a legitimate criminal organization out to make him or her rich off a life of crime.
After spending some time with the suspect, he would finally be contacted by a man referred to only as “Mr. Big”, supposedly the head of the crime syndicate. Mr. Big would say the police were asking around about the crime the police originally believed was connected to the suspect, and would then ask the suspect to divulge details of the crime so that Mr. Big could use his movie mafia magic to make them “go away.” And this wasn’t some small operation cooked up by some loose cannon out to truly make the world a better place, dozens upon dozens of confessions were tricked out of suspects over a period of several years.
While this sounds like a really clever and funny way to ensnare a criminal, when Mr. Big meets the real world, the two collide with exactly the same destructiveness that you would imagine would come from something so awesome meeting boring reality. After a series of suspects were proven innocent even after “confessing” it became clear that when you put someone in a “criminal” gang surrounded by “criminals,” they are going to do exactly what most people do in unfamiliar and overwhelming situations with peers they’re desperate to impress: lie like a fiend to look badass.
Undercover Abortion Busts
So abortion. No topic is more guaranteed to turn an otherwise fun night into a shouting match. People will call their best friends murderers or unfeeling Puritans when this subject is broached. Needless to say, it’s complicated and intractably controversial. On top of that, even today the exact procedures are legally dubious and ever-changing as conservative legislatures play a game of cat-and-mouse with the courts to see just what they might sneak through.
Such was the situation surrounding the case of a Planned Parenthood in, surprise, Birmingham, Alabama. Employees were caught on tape bending the rules to allow minors to get abortions, and signing off on obviously fake “parent permission." Now to read that link, you would think that they were chaining 12 year-olds to tables and forcibly aborting the fetus while their parents wept, powerless, outside. The truth is a little more complex.
Essentially a conservative activist would pose as a pregnant 14 year-old and beg employees to perform an abortion. While there’s no arguing the fact that the law was broken, it’s difficult to say how one should rightly react when a pregnant child walks up to you and tearfully pleads not to tell her parents (which was the specific law being broken, the abortion itself was legal).
To Catch a Predator
While we’re one the positively cheery topic of sex with minors, inevitably Chris Hanson and the show To Catch a Predator will come up in conversation. NBC collaborated with a volunteer organization that worked closely with law enforcement to ensnare potential child predators and catch them on national TV. The volunteer organization would chat up predators online, get them to agree to a meeting, the set up Chris Hanson and the local police department.
While there’s something cathartic about watching scum who wanted to sex up 12 year olds get called out nationally, there’s a reason most law enforcement strives to be unspectacular and boring. When you put a crazy person in an extremely stressful situation where they’re called out in front of the entire nation without so much as a trial, expecting a normal person--much less someone who wanted to have sex with a child--to react calmly is hilarious. While most episodes ended with the pedophile being shocked to near-coma then jumped by police, eventually the inevitable happened and one victim just straight shot himself. The show was cancelled shortly thereafter, and the police presumably went back to the much less interesting, but less suicidey, method of just arresting the person immediately.
The Oneida Child Porn Busts
Just to get it out of our system before moving on, let’s round out the whole abuse of minors topic with the Oneida county child porn sting. Seven people were arrested in this sting, making it rather large by law enforcement standards, but no means the largest in history. What’s strange about this particular case is the detail with which the news organization describes the methods officers used to snag this ring.
There are a lot of things that take place in this world that we would hope get done but don’t exactly want to think about the specific methods behind their accomplishment. We hope that the feces gets filtered out of our water before it is introduced back into the water supply even if we don’t want to think of giant feces-filters. We hope that murderous terrorists are killed even though we probably aren’t capable of killing anything larger than a house fly. And we hope that child pornographers get caught even though we don’t really even want to think about looking at children performing sexual acts.
Well as the article documents, the brave souls of the New York state police had to do just that in order to convict these people. They even had to presumably pose as people who were just mad to get their hands on some hot 8 year-olds. Once you think about this long enough, some disturbing implications arise. Do these officers stare at the pictures for hours and then turn to their employees and say “Yep that’s definitely child porn right there you can tell by the penis”? Is there some sort of handbook or set of guidelines? Are they allowed to look at this alone? How could you possibly look at this and discuss it with other people? How do you tell your wife what you did today at the office? And finally, with all the presumably complex liability that would arise from looking at naked minors, there has to be some sort of “Child Porn Watching” certification, right? Imagine putting that on your resume.
Some undercover operations are twisted and kind of sad, requiring law enforcement to bend the rules of conduct and blur the line between cop and criminal. Some are triumphant, bringing down the big bad crime boss through years of meticulous work and sacrifice. Then there are some like the case of former DC mayor Marion Barry, which border on candid-camera hilarious. Well, you know -- if they didn’t involve an elected official who ran the seat of American power for a couple of decades, that is.
Barry was a prominent politician and civil rights icon for most of his career. But like so many other, once pure and idealistic politicians, he eventually came under investigation from the FBI and DC police in the early 90s. They managed to flip his girlfriend into an informant, and eventually caught him on camera smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room. Afterward Barry was livid, and ended up muttering the immortal quote “Bitch set me up”, which we all can only wish were uttered in an age when the internet existed.
While everyone may bitch and moan about having to get a city permit to build something as simple as gazebo, the law is the law. And while sometimes what the government decides to spend its law-enforcement budget on might seem superfluous, the nice thing is that often criminals will just continue doing criminal things until they get caught.
This all came to a handy confluence in the case of a large undercover bust of more than 150 illegal contractors in California. First off, unlike a kilo of coke that you can flush down the toilet, it’s kind of hard to make a breakfast nook disappear. Secondly, of the hundred or so arrested, the vast majority already had previous criminal records. While it’s hard to imagine police in California having that much foresight or intelligence, in the end it worked out for everyone besides the guy who now has to pay taxes on his illegal swimming pool.
The job of law enforcement, theoretically, is to create a peaceful and law-abiding society, where citizens feel safe and are therefore able to pursue their interests and passions without always having to watch their backs. However, this doesn’t just extend to protecting humans from harm, but also animals, because they are really frickin adorable.
Hence the media frenzy that always crops up any time law enforcement breaks up a major dog fighting ring. Back in 2008, the largest dog fighting ring in the country was broken up by federal investigators after an exhaustive undercover operation. For a few moments the nation forgot its persistent gun murder rates, its national debt and expensive wars abroad and realized that animals, too, have pain receptors, and, like humans, deserve to live free of this sort of horrible duress.
Foreign Bribery Sting
Sometimes an undercover operation is about saving some Irish Corgis from a premature death. Sometimes law enforcement is actually on the ball and they pull some legitimate spy-sounding nonsense like, oh you know, keeping wealthy American businessmen from bribing foreign governments.
As much as we would all like to someday make an obscene amount of money and not have to compromise our values for it, bribery remains a relatively important part of any international corporation’s playbook. As strange as it may seem to Americans, in some countries, bribery is literally the only way to get anything done at all.
In this case a consortium of American businesses arranged to have a bribe paid to a Minister of Defense to some unnamed country in Africa. Supposedly, being American, they felt it was their patriotic duty to provide constitutionally protected-guns and perpetuate a cycle of racial violence. Who knows? Except the defense minister never existed, and the whole thing was a good old-fashioned scam on the part of the FBI, resulting in the arrest of a dozen or so incredibly wealthy people who presumably responded by saying only “ahahahahahahahaha how adorable. Get my million dollar lawyer and his unlimited continuances on the phone.”
In every undercover operation there’s a fine line between allowing a suspect to commit a crime while being observed and recorded by police, and tricking an otherwise innocent person into committing a crime they would have otherwise had no part of. The former is good police work, the latter is known as entrapment and a person cannot be held liable for the crime.
But recently with the advent of GPS and sophisticated electronics, many police departments have decided that this fine line is for nerds and pussies. Hence, many police departments across North America have started prolific use of what are known as bait cars. These cars are usually placed in high-crime areas and left as a low-hanging fruit for a potential grand theft auto culprit. While it may be ethically dubious to essentially create a crime in order to catch a criminal, it’s hard to argue that someone who saw an otherwise unremarkable car and decided to steal it is innocent.
New Jersey’s Largest Prostitution Sting
The nice thing about most vice crime like drugs and sex is that they necessarily require a large market. So it’s easy enough for police to imitate a potential customer, bust a low-level purveyor, and get them to rat out their employers. So low-level drug and prostitution busts tend to be relatively common.
That is why New Jersey’s largest undercover prostitution bust to date is so shocking. With all the prostitution busts in this country, with all the low-level vice cops making a daily grind out of this, and in the seediest state in the union, police were only able to arrest 25 suspects?. That barely larger than the cast and crew of Jersey Shore, a well-known criminal ring of absolute whores.
There are undercover operations, and then there’s just police being mean. The law is the law, but there is a point at which we all solicit sex in public areas, build illegal gazebos, lie under pressure, do some drugs, and seriously consider stealing that thing that was just placed right in front of us. The world wouldn’t be able to function if the police had an undercover unit for speeding or being drunk in public.
That’s why the fact that the police made an active decision to crack down on hippies clandestinely selling raw milk is so ridiculous. While raw milk is kind of hilariously unsafe to consume the fact is that most people can walk down to the corner store, buy a handle of vodka, and make many, many more bad decisions beyond sucking directly from a cow’s teat.