Last year in California, a lonely, seventeen-year-old autistic student thought that he finally made a friend. His “friend” was a fellow student named Daniel Briggs, and the two had art class together. After a while, however, Briggs began to act strangely. Briggs asked his “friend” to get him drugs. In a barrage of sixty text messages over the course of three weeks, Briggs finally wore this special-needs student down. With money that Briggs gave him, the student bought half of a joint from a homeless man and gave it to Briggs. The autistic student purchased drugs for Briggs one more time before refusing to do so again. At this point, Briggs, who was really a Sheriff’s Deputy named Daniel Zipperstein, cut all ties with the student. Shortly thereafter, Deputy Zipperstein, the student’s only “friend,” arrested the teen in a sting that yielded twenty-two students, many of whom had special needs.
Undercover stings in schools invite abuse. While the Los Angeles Police Depart pioneered this type of program in 1974, LAPD stopped using undercover stings in 2005 after finding that they often targeted vulnerable special-needs students, and were ineffective long term. Like the autistic student who was coerced into buying drugs for his “friend,” police may find it easier to trick a special-needs student into committing a crime. A 2007 Department of Justice study confirmed that undercover stings in schools are expensive, prevent the use of more effective problem-solving techniques, and “long term, . . . generally do not reduce [crime].”
Unfortunately, as a symptom of the (failing) war on drugs, some police departments continue to use undercover officers in schools. The institutions that benefit from the war on drugs, like privatized prisons that want the profits that come with full cell occupancy and police officers who get overtime pay for each arrest, have everything to gain from these stings. When police coerce vulnerable students into purchasing drugs and then arrest them, these students enter the criminal justice system, the officer gets his arrest, and the government gets its share of the proceeds. However, these stings are neither effective at reducing crime nor helpful to society—the police essentially create the crime and then penalize it, rather than preventing or stopping a genuine, voluntary criminal act. If we can’t call a truce to the war on drugs, we must at the very least outlaw abusive school stings.