In law enforcement, a sting operation is a deceptive operation designed to catch a person committing a crime. A typical sting will have an undercover law enforcement officer, detective or co-operative member of the public play a role as criminal partner or potential victim and go along with a suspect's actions to gather evidence of the suspect's wrongdoing. Even mass media journalists resort to sting operations to record video and broadcast to expose criminal activity.
Sting operations are common in many countries, such as the United States, but they are not permitted in some countries, such as Sweden.
Ethical and legal concerns
Sting operations are fraught with ethical concerns over whether they constitute entrapment. Law-enforcement may have to be careful not to provoke the commission of a crime by someone who would not otherwise have done so. Additionally, in the process of such operations, the police often engage in the same crimes, such as buying or selling contraband, soliciting prostitutes, etc. In common law jurisdictions, the defendant may invoke the defense of entrapment.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, however, entrapment does not prohibit undercover police officers from posing as criminals or denying that they are police. Entrapment is typically a defense only when suspects are pressured into committing a crime they would probably not have committed otherwise, but the legal definition of this pressure varies greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
For example, if undercover officers coerced a potential suspect into manufacturing illegal drugs to sell them, the accused could use entrapment as a defense. However, if a suspect is already manufacturing drugs and police pose as buyers to catch them, entrapment usually has not occurred.
Sting operations in popular culture
(The term "sting" was popularized by the 1973 Robert Redford and Paul Newman movie The Sting, though the film is not about a police operation: it features two grifters and their attempts to con a mob boss out of a large sum of money.)
- In 1998, three agencies joined forces to conduct a sting operation where they successfully recovered the Honduras Goodwill Moon Rock from a vault in Miami. The sting operation was known as "Operation Lunar Eclipse" and the participating agencies were NASA Office of Inspector General, the United States Postal Inspection Service and U.S. Customs. The moon rock was offered to the undercover agents for $5 million. Journalist Christina Reed broke that story in Geotimes in 2002. Operation Lunar Eclipse and the Moon Rock Project were the subject of the book The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks by Joe Kloc.
- In To Catch a Predator, an NBC reality TV show hosted by Chris Hansen, decoys posing as minors have online conversations with potential sexual predators in an attempt to lure them to a meeting, where they are confronted by Hansen and the police.
- In White Collar, a fictional renowned thief, known as Neal Caffrey, is caught and serves as a criminal consultant for the FBI. Neal during these cases resumes a false identity to lure forgers and other thieves out of hiding so that the FBI can arrest and charge them.
- In the penultimate story arc of the fourth season of the animated television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi conducts a sting operation to finally apprehend the Separatist bounty hunter Cad Bane by feigning his own death and assuming the disguise of a brand-new fellow bounty hunter named Rako Hardeen, who would then follow Bane in taking part of Count Dooku's plan to kidnap Chancellor Palpatine.
- In the 2008 video game Grand Theft Auto IV, the in-game police LCPD took over an in-game website "Little Lacy Surprise Pageant", referencing police attempts to catch child molesters. Visiting the site results in the player attracting police attention.
- In episode 15 of season 2 of Breaking Bad, Brandon "Badger" Mayhew is arrested in a sting operation for selling methamphetamine to undercover police officer Detective Getz. Getz convinces Badger he is not a cop by exploiting the common misconception that an undercover police officer is forced to reveal his identity upon an explicit enquiry.
- In "Contemporary American Poultry", a 2010 episode of the U.S. sitcom Community, the main characters set up a sting operation to catch their classmate "Star-Burns" stealing chicken fingers from their community college's cafeteria. They also do a more direct homage to The Sting in a later season 6 episode.
- A U.S. Customs undercover operation led by Special Agent Robert Mazur that discovered the money-laundering organization of drug lord Pablo Escobar, and took down the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, was dramatized in the 2016 film The Infiltrator.