In 2013, journalists for the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, John Diedrich and Raquel Rutledge, reported on a failed sting operation of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). In an effort to get guns off the street, Operation Fearless aimed to purchase drugs and guns from felons by setting up (fake) storefronts and luring criminals into the store. Stores included phony pawnshops, tattoo parlors, recording studios and thrift stores.
Agents would purchase the weapons from customers and then trace them to “determine their source and use forensics to tie the guns to homicides” (Jeunesse & Prabuncki, 2014). One store, named “Fearless Distributing”, was set up in a Milwaukee neighborhood and sold clothing, jewelry and drug paraphernalia. ATF agents established a logo of a skull with guns and knives with the words “Buy. Sell. Trade.” beneath it. The goal was to draw criminals in by looking like a legitimate shady business. Diedrich and Rutledge (2013) outline the following flaws/problems with the operation:
- The store was set up across the street from a middle school.
- The store was set up in a Milwaukee neighborhood where crime had been waning since 2008.
- ATF agents used mentally disabled people to market the store for them (paying them in cigarettes, McDonalds and occasionally cash). Some of these civilians were later arrested for their involvement with the store despite working under ATF direction.
- ATF agents purchased guns at such a high price from criminals that non-felons were enticed to purchase weapons from local retailers and sell them to the ATF for a higher price. For instance, a .40 caliber handgun was purchased fro $1,250 by ATF agents when that same model had been selling in online auctions for $400-$700.
- A UPS delivery driver, who stopped by offering to set up an account for deliveries (noticing that the store name was “Fearless Distributing”), was told by the undercover agents that they would not be “sending or getting anything”.
- The ATF failed to install a security system for the store and $35,000 in merchandise (including a machine gun) was stolen. Burglars felt secure enough to rent a U-Haul and clean out the store.
- When the 10-month operation was shut down, agents left a sensitive document that listed names, vehicles and phone numbers of undercover agents in the store.
- After vacating the rented space for the operation, the ATF refused to compensate the property owner $15,000 owed for utility bills, holes in the walls, broken doors and damage from an overflowing toilet. This refusal served as the impetus for the owner, David Salkin, contacting reporters Diedrich and Rutledge, which set off the initial investigation.
- At the conclusion of the operation, 36 were arrested including 25 felons and 145 guns were removed from the streets. Three defendants arrested proved to be the wrong people, even though the ATF had video evidence which revealed the accurate identities of the suspects. Three were released because the prosecutor wanted to protect informants.
The response and PR problem
The program was investigated by two House subcommittees and the Justice Department Inspector General’s office. ATF officials were brought before Congress to answer for the failed Milwaukee operation. They told Congress that this operation was “an isolated case of inadequate supervision” (as cited in Diedrich & Rutledge, 2013). ATF agents “defend[ed] the program, saying lawmakers overstate[d] the problem and have no idea what goes into an undercover sting operation” (as cited in Jeunesse & Prabucki, 2014).
The public radio program “This American Life” interviewed reporters Diedrich and Rutlege about the Milwaukee operation. In response, the ATF issued a full statement that barely acknowledged (and certainly with no specificity) failings of the Milwaukee operation. Instead, it focused on how it “successfully” uses various tools (such as storefront operations) and how “safety of agents, the community and suspects is paramount” (as cited in Bertrand, 2014). The response minimized the sting saying that it was “a short-term operation that ended more than 2 years ago” (as cited in Bertrand, 2014). It did address the value of strengthening policy, learning lessons, and creating best practices training materials and procedures (as cited in Bertrand, 2014).
A better ATF response
This failure came on the heels of the ATF’s Fast and Furious operation; it did nothing to boost confidence in the ATF. The ATF did not acknowledge wrongdoing in the operation. Quite the contrary, every statement was in defense of the ATF mission. Kellerman (2006) says that refusal to apologize can be smart or suicidal; it is a high-stake move for leaders and the organizations they represent. The ATF’s refusal to acknowledge and apologize for the botched operation was not suicidal (the government is not going to shut down the ATF), but it did create a lot of angry Wisconsinites and residents of Milwaukee. Parents of students attending the local middle school were outraged. One parent, James Shanks, had two sons attending the nearby middle school and said, “I think it is OK to do it, but did they have to put it there? Couldn’t they find somewhere else? It’s too close to the school. When you have kids around guns, anything can happen” (as cited in Diedrich & Rutledge, 2013).
If the ATF had been transparent, Wisconsinites may have been quick(er) to offer grace. The organization could certainly communicate its value to the communities it serves; the values of the organization are ones which most Americans share. The ATF could have acknowledged failure of this mission while still seeming credible as an organization as a whole. Neumann (2012) recommends organizations in crisis issue statements that acknowledge the problem and demonstrate transparency. Examples of statements include:
- We are aware of the issue, live updates are here: (site URL)
- Here’s what we’re doing to solve it
- Here’s how we’ll prevent it in the future
- Thank you for your patience and feedback
When the ATF did not offer transparency (sometimes being mute; other times claiming that they could not share any more information for confidentiality purposes), it caused community members to criticize the agency altogether, not just the mission.
Bertrand, N. (2014, December 4). 5 Outrageous Tactics the ATF has allegedly used. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/this-american-life-story-on-the-atf-2014-12
Diedrich, J. and Rutledge, R. (2013, January 29). ATF’s Milwaukee sting operation marred by mistakes, failures. Milwaukee- Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. Retrieved from http://www.jsonline.com/watchdog/watchdogreports/atfs-milwaukee-sting-operation-marred-by-mistakes-failures-mu8akpj-188952581.html
Jeunesse, W. and Prabucki, L. (2014, March 3). ATF under investigation for undercover storefront stings. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/03/03/atf-under-investigation-for-undercover-storefront-stings/
Kellerman, B. (2006, April). When should a leader apologize- and when not? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2006/04/when-should-a-leader-apologize-and-when-not
Landlord David Salkin unpaid for damages caused by ATF. (2013). [Online image]. Retrieved from http://theconservativetreehouse.com/2013/02/02/clown-car-level-stupid-atf-sting-operation-in-milwaukee-a-total-failure-machine-guns-missing-atf-robbed-tens-of-thousands-wasted/
Neumann, A (2012, August 20): 5 steps for crisis management using social media. Huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amy-neumann/5-steps-for-crisis- manage_b_1791673.html