Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Just How Effective Are Sting Operations?

There was a piece last week over at the Dallas area news outlet WFAA that looked at a program announced by Dallas Police to use "bait houses" to combat burglaries of vacant homes.
"Once these appliances move, the tracker goes off," Shead said.

It's called a bait house, similar to a bait car. When burglars break in, the video cameras turn on and police can monitor the thieves live.

“We will have GPS tracking placed on the inside of appliances, such as refrigerators, microwaves and dishwashers in the house," Shead said.

Police will send officers immediately out to catch up with the suspects.

According to the DPD, the goal is not only to catch suspects, but find out where the stolen goods are being fenced. They want to know who is buying the stolen property.
Police often turn to sting operations like these when they are up against a particularly intractable problem. But the effectiveness of using stings or "bait" operations isn't always consistent. The Center For Problem Oriented Policing has a guidebook on Burglary at Single-Family House Construction Sites. In the guidebook they have this caveat about "bait" operations:
General surveillance and bait operations are very expensive and have limited effectiveness in apprehending offenders. However, if used tactically with established patterns or confidential informants, they may be successful and cost effective.
 Of course it may be a bit early to judge the Dallas PD operation but the WFAA story had this bit:
The department has one bait house up and running. It's been in operation for two months, but no arrests have been made yet.
So why do police turn to sting operations like "bait" houses if there effectiveness is spotty?

Often times the public pressure on an agency to "do something" about a crime problem is overwhelming. It takes a lot less time to throw together a bait operation than it does to spend months or years working with neighborhoods to encourage people to become better guardians of their own stuff by target hardening or to develop an effective neighborhood watch program. Even if your bait operation catches no one, you can still claim to have done something. Then on the off chance that you actually catch someone, the surveillance video looks pretty sexy on TV at your press conference.

A couple of years ago I was at the IACA / Problem Oriented Policing Conference in Arlington, TX and sat through a presentation by a southern California law enforcement agency that tackled a particularly pernicious stolen motorcycle problem.This agency like many others, turned at first to using bait vehicles to catch thieves. What they found was that by putting out bait vehicles to be stolen by thieves, they were catching only the amateur, opportunistic thieves and not the hard core motorcycle thieves that were plaguing their community. Their problem was they made it too easy for the amateur crooks to take the bait.

When they began to study the problem further they began to sharpen their focus and conduct their operations "tactically with established patterns or confidential informants" then they began to catch the real crooks they were after and not just some poor sap who happened upon a motorcycle with the keys in it.

Have you conducted sting or bait operations at your agency? Were they effective at controlling the crime problem you were trying to combat?


  1. Scott, it's great to see this kind of commentary and I'm not surprised to see those results; I've had similar experiences. I've discouraged, well more like presented the findings from the POP guide regarding the use of bait vehicles...I'm a huge proponent for analysts to encourage effective, supported methods in their own organizations, following up with evaluations to "shake things up", and encourage critical thinking. It's also great to see agencies taking the initiative to use other methods and evaluating their methods. Thanks for the post.

    John Ng

  2. John, Thanks for the comments. I wish that sting/bait operations as a response to a crime problem were more the exception rather than the rule. How many man hours are wasted babysitting a sting of dubious effectiveness?


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