CHICAGO — The plain white freight truck had been roaming Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood when the word got out: The trailer was packed with brand-new Nikes, and cops were watching.
Three men were arrested when they took boxes off the truck in this mostly black neighborhood. A neighbor soon trained his camera on what was later confirmed to be a “bait truck,” placed there by the nearby Norfolk Southern Railway and the Chicago Police Department to lure would-be criminals with a target of opportunity and inevitable arrest.
A video documenting the operation, reportedly aimed at stopping freight and train car theft, went viral after the Facebook page of community activist Charles Mckenzie shared it, saying the truck was unlocked, loaded with Nikes, and targeting kids. “They want us to respect CPD, and CPD is setting us up,” Mckenzie says in the video. Martin G. Johnson, a self-described “crime chaser,” followed the truck and posted video of it on Facebook Live. People decried it as a setup.
“You allow the criminals to go after their prey,” Johnson told VICE News. “You don’t set the prey there for them to set them up.”
The practice of “baiting” is widespread in American policing to draw out potential criminals, whether it’s using undercover agents to buy or sell drugs or pose as sex workers, or using decoy trucks full of merchandise, cars, bikes, computers or cell phones, or leaving packages with GPS devices on people's porches. But even when it works and the arrests make headlines, they rarely spark outrage.
But in the Englewood operation, the bait truck wound up degrading already strained trust between the community and those meant to protect them. Norfolk Southern issued a quick apology, conceding that using the bait truck had “eroded trust between law enforcement and the community.”
“We sincerely regret that our actions caused further unease, and we don’t plan to use this method in the future,” said Susan Terpay, a Norfolk Southern spokeswoman, in an email.
Chicago police spokesman Thomas Ahern told VICE News the bait truck wasn’t their operation but that they were supporting the railroad’s efforts to arrest people in an area where there’s already a high volume of freight and train-car theft.
Critics said it amounts to entrapment by creating an open incentive for crime. The bait items are often affixed with tracking devices, too, which can become a legal issue if left with the thief for an extended period of time, becoming a method of surveillance. And if the bait items are worth more than $500 – packages containing an expensive TV, for example, or a pair of collectable sneakers – it could result in a felony charge for anyone taking the bait.
“This kind of tactic — placing a truck full of valuable material, in a neighborhood that has really, really low economic development, in a neighborhood that’s also a black neighborhood — it’s really counterproductive,” Karen Sheley, director of police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, told VICE News. “We need to be focusing on reform right now.”
Indeed, U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said in a ruling earlier this year that a similar police sting in which the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives stuffed a “stash house” with drugs, cash and armed guards was deemed “tinged with racial overtones,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The case involved whether officers had violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment in pursuing arrests relating to stash houses. Castillo was unable to dismiss charges against eight defendants.
And in New York City, a judge dismissed charges relating to one of these baiting stings in 2013 after a single mother with no criminal history was arrested for merely looking at — not touching — personal items left behind in a car with its doors open in an elaborate ruse, according to the AP.
But baiting has its supporters, who argue it doesn’t matter if an item that attracts the attention of would-be criminals is left as bait. In 2016 — around the 10-year anniversary of their baiting program — the Fort Worth Police Department announced it had made more than 1,000 arrests through a program in which officers catch thieves using bait vehicles, according to the Star-Telegram.
Rick Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, told VICE News that he was “dumbfounded” as to why the Chicago case struck a nerve.
“When you’ve got a locked vehicle — a locked and sealed trailer — and someone physically breaks into it, it’s not like there’s a neon sign on the side of the trailer that says ‘Break into me! Free goods,’” Myers said.
Terpay said that young people were not targeted, nor arrested, as a result of the Chicago operation. Three people were arrested, aged 21, 36, and 59 — but those charges were later dismissed.
The vehicle was also unmarked and locked, with its contents invisible to those walking by. To get into the vehicle, those arrested cut open a safety seal with box cutters and found shoes in unmarked brown boxes inside.
Even so, presence of bait trucks can seem like targeting, especially in neighborhoods predominantly occupied by people of color (95 percent of people living in Englewood are black, according to government data.) It reminds people that officers see them as would-be criminals, and their neighborhoods as problematic.
“Why aren’t you solving the crimes that have already been committed?” Sheley said. “Why are you focusing on creating false opportunities for people to steal in a neighborhood where people have so few resources?”
Cover image: VICE News Tonight on HBO.