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.