We need to talk about sting operations

Police sting operations that walk the line between entrapment and justice are highly unethical.

Jasper Johnson

Six men in Minnesota were arrested this September as part of a child sex trafficking sting operation. Minnesota has close ties to sting operations as a policing technique — in fact, the Minneapolis Police Department pioneered the “bait car” sting program. 
 
Though arguably successful, police sting operations act in an ethical gray area. In my opinion, we should often consider them to be illegal entrapment — that is, during sting operations, the police are tricking people into committing crimes they otherwise wouldn’t commit. 
 
I argue that police strategically employ sting operations in cases where contempt for the criminals elicits Machiavellian “the ends justify the means” responses from the public.
 
This includes child sex trafficking cases. Yet, if police utilized sting operations to their full legal potential, more people would consider them unethical. 
 
Entrapment is illegal. Courts employ one of two general standards for dealing with it: objective or subjective standards. Under objective standards, 
defendants prove that police tactics would convince a normal person to commit the crime. Under subjective standards, defendants must additionally prove that they 
were not predisposed to commit the crime. 
 
The concept of a bait car best illustrates the concept of sting operation without the emotional bias of sex crime cases. In a bait car operation, police place a car and monitor it, waiting until someone attempts to steal it. They may even leave the car running with the doors unlocked and the key in the ignition, or they may fill the car with valuable items. 
 
If you ask me, the notion that police would intentionally fill a car with valuable items shows that they are attempting to will someone into stealing a vehicle — or, in other words, that they’re practicing entrapment. 
 
While many people will take the moral high ground on this issue, claiming they would never steal a car, we should consider other applications. If you found someone’s wallet on the ground, would you take it? Would you knowingly purchase a stolen item for a reduced price? 
 
In Iraq, American snipers also took criticism for their bait operations. Essentially, military personnel placed bomb components on the ground and observed them from a distance. Anyone who attempted to take the items was shot. 
 
In addition to ethical gray areas, sting operations do a great disservice to relations between law enforcement and the community. They often target areas with high crime. In
America, these generally happen to be impoverished areas inhabited by people of color. For obvious reasons, this reinforces animosity between police and the community. 
 
There is little dialogue with respect to the ethics of stings here in the United States, but we need to make them a topic of discussion. I think Minneapolis police should host community outreach events to discuss the ethicality of sting operations. With luck, that will be the first step toward making the public reconsider them.