By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Federal agents lacked proper guidance and experience while conducting undercover sting operations in Milwaukee and several other cities that were aimed at disrupting illegal gun sales, according to a U.S. Justice Department report released Thursday.
The Justice Department’s inspector general’s office report examined shortcomings with U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ storefront sting operations in Milwaukee; Pensacola, Fla.; St. Louis; Wichita, Kansas; and Boston. The operations were designed to curb illegal gun trafficking by luring people with illegal weapons into the store, where agents could identify them, buy their guns to get the weapons off the street and trace the guns’ histories. According to the report, the ATF established 53 storefront operations throughout the country between 2004 and 2013.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an expose in 2013 detailing some of the problems with the storefront operation conducted in that city. It found that agents overpaid for guns with taxpayer money, that guns were stolen from an ATF vehicle and that the storefront was burglarized. What’s more, agents left behind an operational plan at the store when they shut it down. The document included undercover agents’ names, vehicle descriptions, cellphone numbers and secret signals.
Most defendants were charged with low-level offenses and the operation failed to capture any major criminals.
The inspector general’s office also found a number of issues with storefront stings in the other cities.
Pensacola agents didn’t place a team outside the store to help with potential emergencies and had no plans for dealing with people who couldn’t legally possess guns but who left the store armed. The store also was burglarized once; the report said agents didn’t install an alarm.
In St. Louis, agents set up their storefront 600 feet from a Boys and Girls Club. Most of the agents involved weren’t aware of the club and a tactical advisor said it’s never a good idea to run operations around children.
Boston agents ran their store out of a van that moved around, leading the lead agent to remark that the chance of randomly encountering someone on the street who wants to sell a gun was virtually nonexistent.
The report found that the storefront sting operations’ problems were caused primarily by poor management and insufficient training and guidance for field agents. A lax culture that failed to emphasize managing risks also played a role.
It also found that agents lacked adequate policies and supervision. The ATF assigned inexperienced agents to run and supervise the operations and shifted them around without adequate support from the bureau’s headquarters, which didn’t pay enough attention to how the operations were being run.
The report recommended that the ATF consolidate its expertise in running storefront operations and refrain from proceeding with such stings until ATF headquarters agrees that they’re properly designed and executed.
The inspector general’s office also examined whether the five storefronts, as well as a sixth in Portland, Oregon, targeted people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The office found no evidence that the ATF targeted or used disabled people because of their disability.
However, the report concluded that Justice Department’s law enforcement agencies, including the ATF, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Marshals Service, lack policies addressing how to apply federal law prohibiting discrimination based on disabilities.
The report offered 13 recommendations, including developing operation protocols, using experienced agents, tracing firearms quickly and building a plan to ensure disability compliance.
The report includes an August letter from ATF Deputy Director Thomas Brandon promising to concur with all the recommendations. But in the letter, he also stressed that the five operations the report reviewed prevented more than 780 guns from entering illegal commerce and resulting in charging recommendations against 120 people.
“We … believe that community-impact operations such as storefronts are an appropriate and necessary option in the catalog of federal law enforcement techniques,” Brandon wrote.
The report also includes a Sept. 6 letter from U.S. Justice Department Associate Deputy Attorney General Carlos Felipe Uriate saying the agency has put together a disability compliance work group.