A joint investigation by Chicago police and the Norfolk Southern Railroad that used a truck loaded with goods and left parked in Englewood as a lure for potential thieves has come under fire after video of the operation went viral.
“This bait truck operation is an unacceptable and inappropriate use of police resources,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, chair of the City Council’s Black Caucus. “In a moment where police capacity is clearly under extreme strain, these sort of tactics are the last thing we should be spending manpower and energy on.”
A video shot earlier this month that was posted on the Facebook page of community activist Charles Mckenzie appears to show officers arresting a man after he allegedly broke into a “bait truck” in the Englewood neighborhood. People on the video argue that community members are being set up for arrest.
Police have often used bait vehicles to catch people in the act of committing a robbery or a theft. Susan Terpay, a spokeswoman for the Norfolk Southern Railroad police, which worked with Chicago police on the investigation, defended the Englewood investigation, noting these sting operations are tactics used by law enforcement to crack down on patterns of thefts in certain areas.
She said the two agencies were going after people who have been breaking into freight containers in rail yards and nearby areas on the South Side. Terpay said three people, ranging in age from 21 to 59, were arrested during the operation.
“The suspects saw a parked, unmarked trailer and then proceeded to cut open the safety seal with box cutters, broke into the back of the trailer and only then did they find retail shoes in unmarked brown boxes, previously secured and hidden inside,” Terpay said in an email.
The tactic is controversial, however, because some consider it a form of entrapment. After Mckenzie’s video footage was first reported by the news website vox.com, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois issued its statement condemning the practice.
“Police in Chicago must focus on building trust and better relationships within the communities they serve, not engage in stunts like bait trucks,” said Karen Sheley, director of the ACLU of Illinois’ police practices project. “The Chicago Police Department admits that it can’t solve murders and violent crimes because communities of color don’t trust the Chicago police. These stunts won’t help.”
Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot, former head of the Chicago Police Board, also blasted the operation.
“Especially after a weekend with seventy shootings and zero arrests, news of this bait truck operation is an appalling display of misplaced priorities and a step backwards on the path to trust and legitimacy,” Lightfoot said in a statement.
In one of two videos posted on vox.com, a white semitrailer truck can be seen under “L” tracks as a group of passers-by angrily walks toward a group of Chicago police officers.
“Watch for the bait truck. They’re getting everybody out here, man,” one person says.
“It’s a setup, man,” someone said. “That’s how they do us.”
The people shout at officers, who eventually drive off in several police vehicles. At one point, a man can be seen standing with his hands behind his back in the middle of the street surrounded by a group of officers.
“They left a bait truck with … a lot of Nikes in there,” someone says. “Why would you all do that in the hood, though?”
Mckenzie could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A Chicago police spokesman referred all inquiries to Norfolk Southern, saying Chicago police only assisted the railroad in the investigation.
Cook County court records show that David C. King, 36, was arrested shortly before 8 p.m. Aug. 2 and charged with burglary. A Chicago police arrest report of the incident gives the following narrative:
The department was working with Norfolk Southern Railroad police on an investigation dubbed “Operation Trailer Trap” near 59th Place and Princeton Avenue. Officers saw two people approach the back of the trailer and break its seal. The officers saw those two people open the trailer door before fleeing.
About three minutes later, officers saw King, who is deaf and communicates through sign language, enter the trailer, and they radioed in his description. King ran from officers east on 59th Place but was quickly caught and arrested.
With an officer present who understands sign language, King told police he entered the trailer to take food.
During a bond hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Aug. 3, King was released on his own recognizance by Cook County Judge David Navarro. His next court date is Thursday morning.
Chicago Tribune’s Bill Ruthhart and William Lee contributed.