When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel exposed a botched sting of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms that included agents’ hiring a brain-damaged man to promote an undercover storefront and then arresting him for his work, ATF told Congress the failed operation was an isolated case of inadequate supervision. It wasn’t. The Journal Sentinel reviewed thousands of pages of court records, police reports and other documents and interviewed dozens of people involved in six ATF operations nationwide that were publicly praised by the ATF for nabbing violent criminals and making cities safer.
ATF agents employed rogue tactics similar to those used in Milwaukee in every operation, from Portland, Or., to Pensacola, Fl. ATF befriended mentally disabled people to drum up business and later arrested them in at least four other cities. Agents in several cities opened undercover gun- and drug-buying operations in safe zones near churches and schools, allowed juveniles to play video games and teens to smoke marijuana, and provided alcohol to underage youths. As in Milwaukee, agents in other cities offered sky-high prices for guns, leading suspects to buy firearms at stores and turn around and sell them to undercover agents for a quick profit. Agents damaged buildings they rented, tearing out walls and rewiring electricity — then stuck landlords with repair bills. “To say this is just a few people, a few bad apples, I don’t buy it,” said University of Pittsburgh law Prof. David Harris, an expert on law enforcement tactics.