"Operation Kaleidoscope" was a "sting" with a difference.
When the D.C. police pulled off their two phony fencing operations, in concert with the FBI, there were complaints of entrapment on the ground that at least some of the thievery was induced by the law-enforcement officers who subsequently made the arrests.
The FBI's ABSCAM videotapes clearly showed undercover agents talking congressmen into illegal activity (though, in some cases, it didn't take a lot of talk). In any case, it did seem apparent that the congressmen, no matter how venal some of them may have been, wound up committing crimes they would otherwise not have committed.
The early evidence is that Fairfax County did it right.
"We didn't encourage or entice any of the criminal activity, or cause it to happen," Capt. Michael Young said of Operation Kaleidoscope, which so far has netted 74 suspected thieves and burglars. "We avoided the entrapment issue by careful training and enforcement on our side. We instructed our people not to do anything that a businessman would not do. We never encouraged people to steal. In fact, a lot of the thieves found comfort in the fact that we were, as far as they knew, a normal, legitimate business."
It is an important difference. In ABSCAM, agents posed as rich Arab sheiks eager to make illegal payments for illicit congressional assistance. In the District's Operation Sting and GYA (for "Got Ya Again"), police and FBI agents, pretending to be big-time crooks, passed the word that they were willing to buy stolen property. The original idea may have been to lure thieves out of hiding with goods they already had stolen, but the suspicion is that the operations, by setting up an easy fencing arrangement, may actually have induced some thefts.
But the Fairfax authorities never pretended to be crooks. Their ads, which ran in local newspapers, seemed legitimate, promising cash for cameras, jewelry, watches, typewriters, etc.-- just as countless businesses advertise their interest in buying silver, gold or coins.
"We went overboard in some instances to avoid the problem of entrapment," said Young, who drafted the application for the $350,000 federal grant that financed the 18-month operation. "In no case did we approach a person as a co-conspirator, but only as a businessman willing to obtain certain kinds of property." The only hints that the operation might have been on the shady side were the fact that the operators asked no questions about the source of the merchandise, that they failed to follow the recently enacted guidelines calling for identification of the sellers and a 15-day waiting period, and that they paid so little for the merchandise--about 10 percent of value. Still, it can hardly be said that they induced thefts, only that they devised a clever way of smoking out the thieves.
Which is what they had in mind in the first place. Fairfax authorities had a large number of unsolved burglaries, including some instances in which they had suspects but had been unable to build enough of a case to make an arrest.
"Most of those people we caught, especially in the second phase of the operation, were well known to us. Crimes had been reported, and we thought we knew who some of the criminals were, but we had no solid leads, no chance of successfully closing these cases under the traditional approach," Young said.
Operation Kaleidoscope smoked them out. And more than that.
"One of the advantages is that, the way we did it, a person gives you revelations that go into their character and background," Young explained. "People would volunteer to us (on hidden cameras) that they had prior criminal involvement. Normally, the system doesn't have a way to see that. The judge doesn't see it. The probation officer doesn't see it. The police don't see it. When they make these revelations, you can see right away that you haven't enticed some innocent person into crime."
If a person is going to traffic in stolen merchandise, it's awfully helpful if he can be induced into doing so under circumstances controlled by the police. That was the rationale behind the District's two operations. But because the District officers posed as crooks, and also paid top dollar, there is the lingering suspicion that they may have created some of the crime they later sought to punish.
Operation Kaleidoscope took great care to avoid that problem. And while they did not manage to crack any organized burglary ring, they apparently did nab a fair number of seasoned burglars.
No doubt some of the suspects will claim entrapment when they come to trial, but it's unlikely that the claim will stick. The opinion here is that Fairfax did it right.