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activist confronts police

An activist confronts police after a so-called "bait truck" was used in a sting operation on the South Side. (Photo: Martin G. Johnson/YouTube/screenshot)

'Peak Dystopia': Chicago Police Bolster Distrust With 'Bait Truck' Full of Nikes in Poor Black Neighborhood

Critics called the sting operation "an appalling display of misplaced priorities and a step backwards on the path to trust and legitimacy."

Jessica Corbett

On the same day anti-violence protesters shut down Chicago's Lake Shore Drive during rush hour, demanding the resignations of Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, police in the city launched a sting operation that involved leaving a "bait truck" full of boxed Nike shoes in Englewood—deepening distrust of law enforcement among the South Side neighborhood's mostly black and low-income residents, and provoking outrage among civil rights advocates.

"The Chicago Police Department admits that it can't solve murders and violent crimes because communities of color don't trust the Chicago police. These stunts won't help," declared Karen Sheley, director of the Police Practices Project at the ACLU of Illinois.

Instead of such stunts, Sheley said, "police in Chicago must focus on building trust and better relationships within the communities they serve"—particularly those "communities that have too often been the target of police abuse."

In a statement to the Chicago Tribune, Alderman Roderick Sawyer, chair of the City Council's Black Caucus, called the operation "an unacceptable and inappropriate use of police resources," and said that "in a moment where police capacity is clearly under extreme strain, these sort of tactics are the last thing we should be spending manpower and energy on."

Miles Kampf-Lassin, an editor at the Chicago-based progressive magazine In These Times, denounced the operation alongside other moves by Emanuel's administration:

"Especially after a weekend with 70 shootings and zero arrests, news of this bait truck operation is an appalling display of misplaced priorities and a step backwards on the path to trust and legitimacy," concluded Lori Lightfoot, former head of the Chicago Police Board—an "independent civilian body that decides disciplinary cases involving Chicago police officers"—and one of Emanuel's challengers in the 2019 mayoral race.

"Operation Trailer Trap" was a joint effort between the Norfolk Southern Railroad police and the Chicago Police Department that, according to the railroad company, aimed to catch those responsible for break-ins at freight containers in South Side rail yards. It garnered national attention after community activist Charles Mckenzie posted on Facebook on Aug. 2 that "police parked a truck with boxes of Nike shoes [in] front of kids...and when people hop in the truck the police hopping out on them," along with a video that now has hundreds of thousands of views:

The story was picked up by local media and Vox, which reported:

Bait devices, be they unattended vehicles or packages, are intended to be stolen. Police typically leave them in high-crime neighborhoods in spots where thieves are most likely to take them. ...But as the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn widespread attention to anti-black policing and the disproportionate number of African Americans in prison, reports of a bait truck in an impoverished community of color have predictably sparked an outcry.

The Englewood residents seen in video footage regarded it as another hostile act by law enforcement instead of a bid to cut down on crime. Moreover, the alleged placement of the bait truck near a basketball court filled with kids signaled, to some, a ploy to ensnare vulnerable youth in the criminal justice system rather than career criminals.

"There were a lot of young guys playing basketball... Why would they do that in the poorest communities to people who dont have anything better?" said Mckenzie. "Anything over $500 is a felony, and they're going to get some guys who don't [already] have a felony and charge them."

Subsequent videos by Mckenzie and others showed the truck parked at another location the following day:

Mckenzie, a former gang member who's been involved with local anti-violence efforts, told Vox he believes the operation will worsen relations between Englewood residents and police. "How do we supposed to trust Chicago police if they setting us up like this?" he asked. "How can we trust them?"

Mckenzie and Sawyer also spoke with CBS Chicago, which reported that three people were arrested after falling for the bait truck trap:

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