By Nadra Nittle
A community activist questions how residents can trust police after the bait truck sighting in Englewood.
A truck loaded with Nike Air Force 1 sneakers and Christian Louboutin shoes turned up in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago last week. It was a “bait truck” parked by Norfolk Southern Railway police, with assistance from Chicago Police, to lure thieves to their arrest. The truck traveled to more than one site in the predominantly black community on the city’s southwest side. Police arrested three people during the sting, which was intended to curb cargo theft in the area, according to Norfolk Southern.
An August 2 video shot by Charles Mckenzie of the crime prevention group God’s Gorillas captures residents confronting officers about the truck; it has made the rounds on Facebook, Instagram, Lipstick Alley, and the World Star Hip-Hop site.
Another video, shot by self-described “crime chaser” Martin G. Johnson, shows the bait truck at a different location the next day. In both videos, community members accuse officers of trying to set residents up to steal.
“In the recent past, individuals broke into parked freight containers in the Chicago area, stealing a range of consumer goods, to include guns and ammunition in transit,” Norfolk Southern spokesperson Susan Terpay said in an email to Vox. “Norfolk Southern has the responsibility to ensure the freight we are transporting is safely delivered and does not pose a risk to the communities in which we operate. This week’s police operation was intended to directly combat such unacceptable thefts.”
Terpay also denied allegations from community activists that police left the bait truck open. Video surveillance shows a man using box cutters to break open the safety seal on the unmarked trailer, she said, and additional footage shows two men finding the boxes of shoes, which were not visible from the street.
A Chicago Police spokesperson said that the department only assisted with enforcement of the Norfolk Southern sting. He directed requests from comment to the railway company. The Chicago field office of the FBI told Vox it would not comment for this story. But over the past decade, law enforcement agencies in the US have increasingly turned to bait devices to reduce crime.
Bait devices, be they unattended vehicles or packages, are intended to be stolen. Police typically leave them in high-crime neighborhoods in spots where thieves are most likely to take them. A parked bait car, for instance, would be left in an area where car theft is a problem. Bait devices are rigged with surveillance equipment and tracking devices so that authorities, usually waiting nearby, can quickly catch offenders who make off with them.
But as the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn widespread attention to anti-black policing and the disproportionate number of African Americans in prison, reports of a bait truck in an impoverished community of color have predictably sparked an outcry. The Englewood residents seen in video footage regarded it as another hostile act by law enforcement instead of a bid to cut down on crime. Moreover, the alleged placement of the bait truck near a basketball court filled with kids signaled, to some, a ploy to ensnare vulnerable youth in the criminal justice system rather than career criminals.
“There were a lot of young guys playing basketball,” according to Mckenzie, who said he spotted the bait truck while driving nearby. “Why would they do that in the poorest communities to people who don’t have anything better?”
Terpay denies that the bait truck was parked near a basketball court but couldn’t specify how far away the nearest court was from the trailer or whether area kids were playing basketball on a makeshift court of some sort. She said the men arrested ranged in age from 21 to 59, and juveniles were not targets of the operation.
Mckenzie said that many Englewood residents have nothing to lose, making the temptation of unattended cargo too great for many to resist. Englewood’s poverty rate is at least 40 percent, by some estimates, and more than 60 percent, according to others. While the community is known as a high-crime area, in 2017 shootings and homicides in the neighborhood dropped by 44 percent and 45 percent, respectively, the Chicago Tribune reported. Car theft also went down.
Mckenzie, 29, said that he had never before seen a bait truck in Englewood. But as cargo theft across the country becomes a growing problem, law enforcement agencies have used bait to catch thieves. Although they might reduce crime, critics wonder if “sting trailers” are simply creating crime, turning tempted bystanders who wouldn’t ordinarily steal into offenders.
Federal and local law enforcement agencies are using bait as a crime deterrent
Reports of bait trucks in Englewood might be rare enough to generate community outrage, but police have used bait devices there previously. An unsuccessful police operation using a bait car in Englewood even ended up on the since-canceled TruTV reality show Bait Car in 2012. Police may leave bait cars unlocked, place the keys inside, or leave packages inside to make them more alluring to thieves.
In the Bait Car episode that took place in Englewood, the car itself was the bait, but the thieves ended up taking the police surveillance equipment in the trunk rather than the vehicle. They managed to escape before the authorities could apprehend them.
In 2008, the Chicago Police Department made headlines for using a bait car to cut down on auto theft in high-crime areas. The city is not alone. Dallas police use bait cars to reduce auto theft, and Philadelphia-area police have used bait cars for several years too. In San Francisco, authorities use bait bicycles to deter bike thieves. Bait bikes have GPS tracking devices and are positioned in areas where they’re likely to be stolen. Authorities in other cities have used trucks, rigged with monitoring devices, to make bait out of …read more