The nation's top gun-enforcement agency overwhelmingly targeted racial and ethnic minorities as it expanded its use of controversial drug sting operations, a USA TODAY investigation shows.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has more than quadrupled its use of those stings during the past decade, quietly making them a central part of its attempts to combat gun crime. The operations are designed to produce long prison sentences for suspects enticed by the promise of pocketing as much as $100,000 for robbing a drug stash house that does not actually exist.
At least 91% of the people agents have locked up using those stings were racial or ethnic minorities, USA TODAY found after reviewing court files and prison records from across the United States. Nearly all were either black or Hispanic. That rate is far higher than among people arrested for big-city violent crimes, or for other federal robbery, drug and gun offenses.
The ATF operations raise particular concerns because they seek to enlist suspected criminals in new crimes rather than merely solving old ones, giving agents and their underworld informants unusually wide latitude to select who will be targeted. In some cases, informants said they identified targets for the stings after simply meeting them on the street.
"There's something very wrong going on here," said University of Chicago law professor Alison Siegler, part of a team of lawyers challenging the ATF's tactics in an Illinois federal court. "The government is creating these crimes and then choosing who it's going to target."
Current and former ATF officials insist that race plays no part in the operations. Instead, they said, agents seek to identify people already committing violent robberies in crime-ridden areas, usually focusing on those who have amassed long and violent rap sheets.
"There is no profiling going on here," said Melvin King, ATF's deputy assistant director for field operations, who has supervised some of the investigations. "We're targeting the worst of the worst, and we're looking for violent criminals that are using firearms in furtherance of other illegal activities."
The ATF's stash-house investigations already face a legal backlash. Two federal judges in California ruled this year that agents violated the Constitution by setting people up for "fictitious crime" they wouldn't otherwise commit; a federal appeals court in Chicago is weighing whether an operation there amounted to entrapment. Even some of the judges who have signed off on the operations have expressed misgivings about them.
On top of that, defense lawyers in three states have charged that ATF is profiling minority suspects. They asked judges to force the Justice Department to turn over records they hope will prove those claims. Last year, the chief federal judge in Chicago, U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo, agreed and ordered government lawyers to produce a trove of information, saying there was a "strong showing of potential bias."
Justice Department lawyers fought to block the disclosures. In one case in Chicago, the department refused to comply with a judge's order that it produce information about the stings. The records it has so far produced in other cases remain sealed.
Because of that secrecy, the data compiled by USA TODAY offer the broadest evidence yet that ATF's operations have overwhelmingly had minority suspects in their cross hairs. The newspaper identified a sample of 635 defendants arrested in stash-house stings during the past decade, and found 579, or 91%, were minorities.
The ATF said it could not confirm those figures because the agency does not track the demographics of the people it arrests in stash-house cases.
That alone is troubling, said Emma Andersson, a staff attorney for the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project. "Management is simply putting its head in the sand," she said.
Other police agencies routinely collect that type of information to monitor racial profiling, and Attorney General Eric Holder said in April that the Justice Department would attempt to do so.
"It's not enough to say we're not purposely targeting young men of color," said Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who has studied the ATF's tactics. "When you have a possibly discriminatory effect, it should still require you to go back and look at the structure of the operation," including where and how agents choose to conduct the operations.
ATF guidelines require that field supervisors and officials in Washington approve each stash-house sting.
The ATF declined to explain how it selects the stings' targets, other than to say its agents rely on criminal records, police intelligence files and confidential informants to identify people already responsible for violent robberies. Still, court records raise questions about how and where those informants go about finding suspects.
In one case in San Diego, a government informant, identified in court records by the pseudonym "Tony," testified that he sometimes approached people on the street to see whether they wanted to commit a drug robbery. Which streets, defense attorney John Kirby asked.
"Different neighborhoods. I have targeted all kinds of areas," the informant replied.
"Do you do it in La Jolla?" Kirby asked, referring to the well-to-do seaside section of San Diego.
"I'm not familiar with La Jolla," he replied.
"Scripps Ranch?" Kirby asked, referring to another.
Kirby, a former federal prosecutor, said it was clear to him ATF informants were "trolling what was almost exclusively an African-American neighborhood, and there aren't a lot of those in San Diego."
Contributing: Mark Hannan
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