CHICAGO — Even in a city rife with distrust of law enforcement, residents were shocked by the sting operation: A tractor-trailer filled with Nike sneakers parked in an impoverished neighborhood on the South Side.
The “bait truck” was left there earlier this month to lure would-be thieves into a trap, authorities said. Three men were arrested on charges of stealing from the truck, prompting outrage in the community where faith in police is already at a low point.
“Y’all are dirty,” one young man yelled at uniformed officers stationed near the truck in a video that spread quickly online. “You wouldn’t have did it in your neighborhood.”
Chicago police, however, were playing a secondary role in the sting: “Operation Trailer Trap” was led by Norfolk Southern Railway, with officers from its own police unit, and was orchestrated on Aug. 2 and 3 after several thefts of parked and locked freight trucks and containers in the immediate area. After the tactic was roundly criticized, the railroad company apologized and promised not to do it again. Prosecutors dropped burglary charges against the men.
But the damage was done. The operation may not have been the Chicago Police Department’s idea, but it certainly bore the brunt of the backlash.
“You don’t bait people. You bait animals. Are you calling us animals?” Charles Mckenzie, an anti-violence activist who shot the video, said in an interview.
The failed operation comes at a tense time for Chicago, where 66 people were shot on a recent weekend, another 58 were shot last weekend, and a police officer is expected to go on trial next month in connection to the 2014 killing of a black teenager. The death of the teenager, Laquan McDonald, roiled the city and led to murder charges against the officer, Jason Van Dyke.
“The reason this struck such a nerve is that we are at such a low point of trust between the police and the black community,” said Karen Sheley, a director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “The city has promised again and again to reform the police department.”
More than two weeks after the bait truck was deployed in a neighborhood where nearly all of the residents are black, resentment lingers over the episode. In a rebuke to police, community groups plan to give away hundreds of pairs of donated shoes in the neighborhood this weekend — an idea Chicago rapper Vic Mensa is calling the “anti-bait truck.”
Mensa, a Grammy-nominated artist who grew up on the city’s South Side, said he came up with the plan because he wanted to find a way to invest in the neighborhood. The timing of the sting operation — during a period of summer violence — was disrespectful, he said.
“To see the police escort a bait truck full of shoes through a low-income neighborhood where people can’t afford basic necessities, it seemed very representative of how ill-equipped they are to deal with the city’s issues,” Mensa said in an interview.
The “bait truck” was left near 59th Place and Princeton Avenue in Englewood, a neighborhood where nearly 60 percent of the residents earn less than $25,000, according to 2015 census data. It is also among the most crime-ridden, though last year it recorded fewer shootings and other violence than in past years.
Chicago police referred questions to Norfolk Southern, which said the action was in response to cargo thefts that had included guns and ammunition. Earlier this month, the Chicago police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, said he would take a “hard look” at the episode, but defended the motives behind it.
“They had been experiencing a lot of theft of firearms over there, so we have a responsibility to keep these firearms off the street and out of the hands of the wrong people,” Johnson told reporters.
Still, some critics have questioned why Chicago police were involved at all, and encouraged the department to take responsibility, even if it only assisted with the arrests.
“If you plan on doing a murder and I come with you to drive the getaway car, I’ll go to prison too,” Mensa said. “Whether or not the initiative was an idea generated by the police, they’re an accomplice.”
Initial reports said police left the cargo truck open and that teenagers were targeted, but railroad officials said it was locked and the men who were arrested were between the ages of 21 and 59.
“The suspects saw a parked, unmarked trailer and then proceeded to cut open the safety seal and broke into the back of the trailer and only then did they find retail shoes in unmarked brown boxes, previously secured and hidden inside,” said Susan Terpay, a spokeswoman for Norfolk Southern.
The railroad also provided video of the thefts, which shows several men inside the truck grabbing large brown boxes. Still, railroad officials apologized in a letter published in The Chicago Tribune.
“Norfolk Southern recognizes that, despite the need to safeguard freight in the area, this operation eroded trust between law enforcement and the community,” the letter said. “We sincerely regret that our actions caused further unease, and we don’t plan to use this method in the future.”
The idea of using expensive items to entice would-be thieves is not a new idea. In San Francisco, police have used high-end “bait bikes” to make arrests. And a reality television show called “Bait Car” on truTV captured vehicle thefts.
A spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has received a barrage of criticism over his response to the city’s violence as he runs for re-election early next year, said in a statement that improving trust between police officers and residents had been a key part of reducing violence in the city.
“We believe Norfolk Southern made the right decision in eliminating this misguided practice,” the spokesman, Matt McGrath, said.