The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) has coerced mentally disabled people into unwitting participation in undercover stings, and later arrested them for the actions performed during those stings, according to a new investigation released Monday by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In several cities across the United States, the Sentinel found that ATF repeatedly used questionable tactics to try to further their investigations. A few of these involved paying or training mentally disabled people to involve themselves in crimes. For example, a man agents described as “slow-headed,” with an IQ in the 50s, was hired to work in a fake storefront set up by ATF. Undercover agents then encouraged by him to try to go out and find guns to buy. When he found them some, they arrested him, on over 100 counts of being a felon in possession of a gun.
ATF agents also once taught a man how to saw off a shotgun so that they could charge him with a more serious crime, and another time hired a felon to buy guns in a pawn shop, despite it being illegal for someone to knowingly sell a gun to a felon. And those are just some of the stories uncovered by the Sentinel, which together paint a picture of an agency that might have caused more harm in the process of trying to reduce it.
This investigative method apparently led to many arrests — usually from people with whom the agents had been interacting for months — but the convictions weren’t quite as successful:
But in many cases examined by the Journal Sentinel, the people charged in the stings had minor criminal histories or nonviolent convictions such as burglary or drug possession.
In several of those cases, defendants still got stiff sentences, but others resulted in little or no punishment. In Wichita, nearly a third of the roughly 50 federal cases charged led to no prison time. Defendants got probation or had their case dismissed, records showed. One was acquitted by a jury.
Not the results federal agents typically trumpet.
When the Sentinel uncovered incidents earlier this year of ATF’s tactic of using the disabled to get arrests, Congress demanded an internal investigation. The agency insisted that these were isolated occasions not indicative of a broader problem. Eight months later, the results of Congress’s investigation are not yet out.