Among the general public, the rise of mass incarceration in America is usually attributed to Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs.” In From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, though, historian Elizabeth Hinton reveals that the nation’s prison problem is the outcome of a historical process that began under the Johnson administration during a period known more for its civil rights legislation and social welfare initiatives than for criminalization of the urban poor. Those Great Society programs were entangled with a set of assumptions about African Americans, poverty, and crime that underwrote the passage of the 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which authorized the infusion of federal money to “modernize” local law enforcement. By the mid-1970s, the federal government had embraced a new tactic, granting urban police departments money to purchase and fence stolen goods as a means of attracting criminals. As Hinton reveals in the passage excerpted below, what started as one outrageous setup in Washington, DC, soon spread across the nation, and these carefully orchestrated sting operations quickly evolved into an attack on black petty thieves and came to involve the creation of crime itself—a central feature of the rise of the carceral state.
The Washington, DC, Police Department’s sting effort was the most elaborate and the most contrived of those supported by this federal funding. In the summer of 1975, Washington police lieutenant Robert Arscott had set up a small fake fencing operation masquerading as the consulting firm “Urban Research Associates.” The undercover officer who manned the operation in downtown Washington sat behind a desk with a hidden camera and a tape recorder, hoping that thieves who had recently lifted office equipment would attempt to sell the stolen merchandise to the Urban Research Associates outfit. But amid the highest unemployment rate since 1941, the façade attracted more job seekers than criminals. The police department promptly shut down Urban Research Associates.
For its next attempt, the DC Police Department used federal and local funds to purchase an unheated warehouse near Langdon Park in the segregated northeast side of the District as a more convincing space for illegal transactions. Beginning in fall 1975, law enforcement purchased $2.4 million worth of stolen property with $67,000 in government funds. The project, called “Operation Sting,” involved the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA). After only five months, the initiative succeeded in its implicit purpose: to round up hundreds of small-time crooks, nearly all of them unemployed black men. The undercover police officers and federal agents posing as Mafia “dons” gave themselves Italian names straight out of the then-recent Godfather films, including “Angelo Lasagna,” “Mike Franzino,” “Tony Bonano,” “Rico Rigatone,” and “Bohana LaFountaine.” None of the officers were of Italian descent, but they interspersed terms like “Ciao” and “Arrivederci” as they played these roles.
Operation Sting created a demand for crime by providing crooks with a market on which to sell stolen goods. Word quickly spread that the fencing outfit, known to its customers as PFF Inc (for “Police-FBI Fencing Incognito”), was tied to the Mafia and would pay the highest prices in town. The petty thieves furnished PFF Inc with typewriters, adding machines, radios, and television sets, and then went back out to steal more items for the “dons.” If no valuable material goods were to be found, the crooks went after their neighbors’ mail, bringing stolen housing and welfare checks and credit cards. As their employer, PFF Inc provided the thieves with a steady and continuous source of income as long as they could deliver the plunder.
The officers built criminal profiles of their customers over the course of the sting. To gain permission to enter the warehouse, the crooks called a special number from a phone booth in front of a gas station down the street, providing basic information about themselves and the items for sale. The distance from the booth to the fencing site gave Detective Patrick Lilly, acting as “Pasquale Larocca,” enough time to flash the customer’s identity, the date, and the time of the transaction in front of one of the warehouse’s many hidden cameras. As each petty thief entered, a two-way mirror hidden by lewd images of naked women captured his identity. To “prove” they were not informants or police, each suspect provided the undercover officers with their Social Security card, driver’s license, or birth certificate. Sometimes the PFF Inc agents would provoke the criminals by nonchalantly mentioning the violent mafia crimes they had supposedly committed. Tony Bonano would say in the middle of a transaction: “We gotta stiff in the trunk. Whadda we do?” to which Rico Rigatone would reply: “Tossa him in the freeze.” The officers hoped this interplay would make the thieves more comfortable in sharing details about their own crimes. Indeed, repeat customers built relationships with their PFF Inc employers and talked openly about prior crimes and pending court cases. All of the confessions were captured on film. After completing a deal, the officers offered the crooks a glass of Chianti or a shot of whiskey, from which they would promptly retrieve fingerprints of the suspects.
This type of ornate acting offered the fences a welcome break from routine beat work. “We played a game with them,” one of the detectives remarked. “We were romance, the mob, the greatest thing that ever happened to them.” “Larocca” gained a reputation among the customers for his meatballs, smothered in hot sauce, salt, and mustard. “Have a meatball,” the officer might say to a suspect as he entered the warehouse. “You’ll hurt Pasquale’s feeling if you no have a meatball.” Although Lieutenant Robert Arscott, one of the masterminds behind the operation, commented that the crooks “thought they were in Hollywood. It was almost pathetic,” perhaps this belief extended to the officers, too, who dyed their hair black to fit the role and drove around in a fleet of limousines. Arscott and his team never questioned the ethical implications of their own actions, but instead delighted in the fact that they had “fooled virtually every hood in town” for the duration of the operation.
When PFF Inc had exceeded its initial budget and considered shutting down the business in late December, the LEAA saved the day and floated the fencing operation for an additional two months. By the end of February 1976, the immense amount of information the officers collected and their desire to act on a number of the recorded confessions brought the fencing outfit to its conclusion. In order to round up the suspects together and save thousands of police man-hours hunting for them one by one, the undercover agents decided to throw a party in honor of their customers, promising door prizes, whiskey, women, and the chance to finally meet the “Big Boss.” The tactic had worked for the New York Police Department in a more modest venture, and seemed to be a fitting grand finale for the PFF Inc enterprise. The undercover agents encouraged their customers to attend and spread the word about the event. On the evening of Saturday, February 28, the attendees (referred to as “street hoodlums” by the law enforcement officials) came out in their finest, some even renting tuxedos for the occasion.
Washington police sergeant Carl Mattis, who played guest of honor “Don Corleone,” greeted the crooks at the entrance. Soul music blared to prevent new arrivals from hearing the arrests taking place in the back of the ware house. “Bless you, my son,” Corleone said as attendees kissed his ring. “Before you go into the party, I have a really funny thing to tell you. You’re under arrest.” And arrest they did. The mobsters prepared the handcuffs in advance, with each suspect’s name and identification number, bringing seventy of the thieves into custody on the night of the party. Larocca sang “When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie” as he secured the cuffs on the crooks. The department later issued warrants for the suspects caught on camera, a total of about 120 offenders. Most were released or received light sentences, but all of the suspects who came to the party either took a plea bargain or received a conviction.
When the sting went public, cocktail parties in Washington buzzed with details of the caper. The District’s elite expressed varying opinions about the methods PFF Inc employed. For FBI agent Robert Lill, who planned the operations with Arscott, the venture had “succeeded beyond our wildest hopes.” Others voiced their misgivings. The journalist Sanford J. Ungar astutely noted in a Washington Post editorial, “The very existence of a major fencing operation in Washington’s inner city—be it government run or a form of free enterprise—may in effect encourage burglaries and robberies… a hazard and a factor that must be considered before LEAA, pumped up with funds by Congress, runs off and sets up a kind of nationwide chain-store fencing network.” Residents flooded the DC Police Department with requests to retrieve stolen property and wrote letters to police chief Maurice J. Cullinane expressing their outrage. While many constituents were comfortable with the operation’s end result, they found the ethnic stereotypes the police department used to play Italian Mafia dons highly offensive. In an effort to restore the police department’s public perception, Officer Lilly thanked “the Italian-Americans for the use of their mythology,” and insisted the police did not act in an ethnically insensitive manner. “We meant no harm, except to the thieves,” he assured the public. The stings proliferated thereafter, but avoided resorting to ethnic stereotypes as an undercover device when possible.
Federal law enforcement institutions and the DC Police Department found Operation Sting to be so beneficial that they planned and funded another fencing event that summer called “Operation Got Ya Again.” The venture marked “a new era in law enforcement,” as federal prosecutor Earl J. Silbert noted. This time, police officers courted the thieves and potential thieves by operating under the name H & H Tracking Company. FBI agent Charles E. Harrison handled most of the goods, which again included stolen credit cards, welfare checks, negotiable papers, and personal household items. A more expansive effort than the previous sting, “Operation Got Ya Again” captured 141 suspects—many of whom were out on bail and had also worked for PFF Inc. It involved police departments in Prince George County, Alexandria, and Montgomery County, as well as the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the General Service Administration, and the U.S. Secret Service. These cross-agency partnerships were unprecedented. As LEAA administrator Richard Velde described it, “The participants have been excited almost to the point of being missionaries about cooperation.” These crime war “missionaries” and the interagency and interlevel partnerships they recruited marked a “new chapter in the War on Crime,” the Washington Post’s Kevin Klose and Ron Shaffer wrote, one in which crime control agencies at all levels of government established new institutions and black markets of their own in the underworld.
Soon, police departments in other cities also wanted to join in fencing stolen goods with federal funds, and the Department of Justice under President Gerald Ford granted twelve urban police departments enough money to arrange twenty separate stings. “Frankly, we’ve been swamped with requests,” Velde said in a press release shortly after Operation Sting, “and we would like to do even more if we could get the money.” Even though its proximity to major federal law enforcement centers rendered the capital an opportune site for close collaboration between national and municipal officials, the Ford administration promoted local fencing operations across the United States with a training film made by the FBI and the DC Police Department and $2 million in discretionary grants. Police in Atlanta bought nineteen cars, six trucks, and 1,700 stolen items with $64,000 in federal funds. The effort led to the arrest of 100 thieves, who sold roughly $1.5 million worth of stolen merchandise to fences.
By the end of the 1970s, the federal government focused fencing operations on larger thefts and complex crimes such as “Operation Bear Trap II” in Baltimore. Financed with a quarter of a million dollars from the LEAA, “Bear Trap II” led to the arrest of forty-seven residents at the end of a seventeen-month-long undercover investigation, on charges related to well over a million dollars’ worth of stolen property. Law enforcement agents set up an antiques store, an auto parts store, and a brokerage firm that allowed officials to pose as fences to target “career criminals.” The stolen property confiscated by Baltimore police included $50,000 worth of silver from the Hampton Mansion, a National Historical Site in the city. As in “Operation Got Ya Again,” these criminals faced arrest in the context of an orchestrated law enforcement spectacle, involving 200 state, city, and county police officers as well as a host of journalists and television reporters. In a similar operation in San Francisco in 1978, federal agents opened up what they called “The Store” and moved $721,900 worth of stolen property before arresting nearly 300 people in a single day on charges ranging from car theft to burglary. In Nashville, $300,000 from the Department of Justice bankrolled another “Operation Sting,” which led to the arrest of one hundred people in a matter of hours and warrants for 200 more.
With the LEAA allocating $8 million for federal, state, and local joint sting operations in 1978, police departments from Penobscot County, Maine, to Norfolk, Virginia, welcomed the opportunity to hone their acting skills and make sweeping arrests. The Los Angeles County sheriff ’s department received the largest federal grant for a major sting, called “Operation Tarpit,” whereby thirty-three deputies and FBI agents set up fake storefronts at seven locations. For nearly two years, the local police had established a formidable underground economy and had gathered $42 million in stolen property with nearly half a million dollars in buy money. In the four years after the “Got Ya” test case in the nation’s capital, police went on to issue arrest warrants for a total of 4,222 people on 6,817 separate charges and recovered $114 million in stolen property throughout the United States. The LEAA was particularly enthusiastic about the operations because of the 98 percent conviction rate for sting-related charges and the high percentage of guilty pleas many defendants accepted. If bringing thousands of black petty thieves into the criminal justice system was the end goal of the fencing operations, then the federal government’s enormous investment in the stings made sense.