Matt Vespa

So, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is back in the news for possibly targeting minorities in drug sting operations. The controversial law enforcement agency has been trying to nab criminals by offering them $100,000 to raid drug stash houses that don’t exist. The problem is the number of people arrested by ATF seem to be overwhelmingly black and Latino (via USA TODAY):

At least 91% of the people agents have locked up using those stings were racial or ethnic minorities, USA TODAY found after reviewing court files and prison records from across the United States. Nearly all were either black or Hispanic. That rate is far higher than among people arrested for big-city violent crimes, or for other federal robbery, drug and gun offenses.

The ATF operations raise particular concerns because they seek to enlist suspected criminals in new crimes rather than merely solving old ones, giving agents and their underworld informants unusually wide latitude to select who will be targeted. In some cases, informants said they identified targets for the stings after simply meeting them on the street.

"There's something very wrong going on here," said University of Chicago law professor Alison Siegler, part of a team of lawyers challenging the ATF's tactics in an Illinois federal court. "The government is creating these crimes and then choosing who it's going to target."

Justice Department lawyers fought to block the disclosures. In one case in Chicago, the department refused to comply with another judge's order that it produce information about the stings. The records it has so far produced in other cases remain sealed.

Because of that secrecy, the data compiled by USA TODAY offer the broadest evidence yet that ATF's operations have overwhelmingly had minority suspects in their cross hairs. The newspaper identified a sample of 635 defendants arrested in stash-house stings during the past decade, and found 579, or 91%, were minorities.

The ATF declined to explain how it selects the stings' targets, other than to say its agents rely on criminal records, police intelligence files and confidential informants to identify people already responsible for violent robberies. Still, court records raise questions about how and where those informants go about finding suspects.

In one case in San Diego, a government informant, identified in court records only by the pseudonym "Tony," testified that he sometimes approached people on the street to see if they wanted to commit a drug robbery. Which streets, defense attorney John Kirby asked.

"Different neighborhoods. I have targeted all kinds of areas," the informant replied.

"Do you do it in La Jolla?" Kirby asked, referring to the well-to-do seaside section of San Diego.

"I'm not familiar with La Jolla," he replied.

"Scripps Ranch?" Kirby asked, referring to another.


Kirby, a former federal prosecutor, said it was clear to him ATF informants were "trolling what was almost exclusively an African-American neighborhood, and there aren't a lot of those in San Diego.

Brad Heath, who wrote the article for USA Today, also noted that this drug sting operation executed by ATF is already under legal scrutiny, with two federal judges in California saying they were unconstitutional. Heath noted that judges who signed off on some of the stings felt unnerved by them. Last year, the chief federal judge in Chicago, U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo, ordered the Department of Justice to release documents relating to these stings since there was "strong showing of potential bias."

This isn’t the first squib load ATF has encountered in their efforts to enforce federal laws. As my colleague Katie Pavlich reported in April, the ATF allegedly targeted the mentally challenged in their storefront operations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Pavlich also documented another ATF foul-up in Beer City, where agents and the local police forgot to remove sensitive documents after a storefront operation was shut down; those sensitive documents had the names, vehicles, and contact information of undercover ATF agents on them.

Then, there was the case that showed the ATF was losing track of the firearms issued to their agents, with some leaving their weapons in bathroom stalls, movie theaters, and hospitals. In one case, an agent left a government-issued firearm on top of a vehicle and drove away.

So, nice work, ATF; thanks for keeping our neighborhoods safe.

Matt Vespa

Matt Vespa is the Associate Editor at He previously worked for and was the recipient of Americans for Prosperity Foundation's 2013 Andrew Breitbart Award for Excellence in Online Activism and Investigative Reporting.