Instead of going after actual sexual predators, some police officers have discovered that it's easier to just trick people. These cops go on adult dating sites, pose as grown women, find lonely guys, flirt, and then claim they are actually underage. The photos they send of "themselves" depict real women in their 20s. When the mark arranges a date, the cops arrest him as a predator.
These stings are the subject of a remarkable piece in The New York Times Magazine by Michael Winerip. He begins by profiling 20-year-old Jace Hambrick, a young man living at home, working in construction and doing a lot of gaming in Vancouver, Washington. When Hambrick found "Gamer Gurl" on Craigslist (which requires users to be 18) he couldn't believe his luck: A woman who professed to love gaming and was looking for a boyfriend. They chatted for awhile and then "Gamer Gurl" said she was actually 13.
"Why did you post an ad in craigslist if your 13? You mean 23?" asked Hambrick.
They emailed, then texted, and she eventually shared a photo of herself. She looked like she was in her late teens or early 20s, she made cultural references most 13-year-olds wouldn't get, and she gave Hambrick driving directions to her home. When he arrived, the person who greeted him was the same woman from the picture. But when he entered the home, two cops handcuffed him. The beautiful young woman was an adult police officer.
Hambrick was sentenced to 18-months-to life, and a minimum of 10 years on the sexual offense registry. (The "to-life" part is real: The state reserves the right to keep extending the sentence indefinitely.)
The Times article explains that cops have arrested 300 men over the past four years via what the Washington state police dubbed "Operation Net Nanny." Many end up serving more time than men convicted of actually raping real kids. The disconnect between their "crime" and the fact no flesh-and-blood child was actually ever in danger—nor were the men looking for under-age partners—does not seem to matter to the cops.
Yet a state police captain giddily described the stings as an amazing return on investment:
"Plea bargains start at 10 years in prison. Compared to other criminal cases that can take a year or longer, may result in a few years in prison, costs hundreds of man-hours and still only result in a single arrest, this is a significant return on investment. Mathematically, it only costs $2,500 per arrest during this operation! Considering the high level of potential offense, there is a meager investment that pays huge dividends."
Apparently sending people away for the longest possible time, not actually protecting the public, is the goal.
That the "meager investment" means locking away chumps who bit the confusing bait of a middle-aged male cop posing as a 20-something female cop posing as a 13-year-old female gamer, well, who cares? Think of the "dividends."
Winerip's article also details the cozy relationship between the police and a non-profit ostensibly dedicated to saving children from trafficking: Operation Underground Railroad. OUR, as it's called, donated more than $170,000 to the Washington police to support these stings. These funds "paid for additional detectives, hotels, food and overtime." Seemingly in return, the police helped the organization reap positive publicity. And of course, the more predators the cops catch, the more people are eager to donate to an organization focused on this scourge.
They must donate generously. OUR's founder, Tim Ballard, earned $343,000 in 2018. The fact that his organization supports a police operation that doesn't help any real child victims and seems to create predators out of lonely men falling for fictional characters? Details, details. Think of the dividends!