The Justice Department building in downtown Washington. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)
Columnist

The undercover sting operation certainly meant well.

Federal officers opened a phony storefront operation, ostensibly selling sneakers and jerseys in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. But the real deal wasn’t selling. It was buying.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) set up shop as a sting operation to attract illegal gun and drug dealers. It worked: 144 firearms were bought and confiscated, as were narcotics during 68 transactions. Thirty-one people were arrested.

Yet, the agency’s “Operation Fearless” was enough of a mess that the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG) was prompted to take a broad look at ATF’s undercover storefront operations. For all the good the Milwaukee sting did, there were enough blunders to make “Operation Feckless” seem an appropriate label.

In a report issued last week, the IG examined similar stings in Pensacola, Fla.; St. Louis; Wichita; and Boston, in addition to Milwaukee. The conclusion is sharp.

The operations were marked by “poor management, insufficient training and guidance to agents in the field, and a lax organizational culture that failed to place sufficient emphasis on risk management in these inherently sensitive operations,” the IG office found. It was alerted to the problems following a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation into Operation Fearless.

In response to the report, the ATF said it agreed with the IG’s recommendations and “acknowledges the findings made by the Inspector General.” Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) said the report demonstrates the need for adequate staff training and clear strategies targeting criminal bosses and not just street-level hustlers. Neighbors also worry, she said, that storefront stings attract “criminal elements to the community.”

The report did not get into some fundamental questions about the theory of law enforcement stings, in addition to their operation.

There are “additional and broader concerns with such stings that still need to be addressed,” said Katie Tinto, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of California at Irvine’s School of Law, such as racial profiling and “actively encouraging vulnerable individuals to commit crime, rather than simply presenting them with an opportunity.”

For all of the guns and drugs the operation took off Milwaukee’s streets from February to September 2012, it also had a prominent ineffectual side.

The immediate incident that led to the store’s blown cover and closing was Keystone Cop-like.

An undercover agent left a government-owned SUV in a coffee shop parking lot one morning and was driven to the sting store by a fellow agent in an undercover vehicle. While parked in the lot, the government SUV was burglarized. Three ATF guns were stolen, including an M4. 223 caliber rifle, which resembles those used in war.

The theft was bad enough. But the next day a person entered the store and sold one of the stolen guns to an agent. The seller said he would return with the other two but didn’t, “and undercover agents at the storefront were unable to recover the remaining two stolen firearms.”

As ATF investigated the theft, a witness said he knew people “selling guns to some ‘White, Undercover, ATF person,’ ” according to the report. That information, along with the theft, led officials to quickly shut the operation.

In another situation, a “known felon” went to the store for a drug deal. He showed an ATF agent a silver revolver he was willing to sell for $250. The agent wanted to buy it right then, but the felon wouldn’t sell it at that time because, the report said, he was planning to “retaliate against some people that had shot his cousin.”

He left the store with the gun. There was no outside cover team in place to follow the felon and stop his planned crime. Fortunately, law enforcement did not learn of a shooting by the felon who was eventually arrested by local law enforcement in Minnesota on unrelated charges. An ATF official called the lack of an outside team “an obvious flaw,” according to the report.

The embarrassing developments didn’t stop when the operation did. After the store closed, it was burglarized. In addition to clothing, televisions and DVD players, a Drug Enforcement Administration’s money counting machine and an ATF tactical ballistic shield were stolen. The total haul was estimated at $39,000. The surveillance cameras stopped working three days earlier when the electrical meter was vandalized.

That’s not all. The agents apparently were careless with their papers. “Months after the agents discovered the burglary, the landlord of the property found an ATF operational plan in the building,” the IG reported.

Speaking of the landlord, a footnote says the property owner “demanded compensation from ATF for all damaged and missing property.” After a “lengthy and contentious dispute,” the ATF paid $25,000 to settle the claim.