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Operation Switch: Going operational

Part two of a four-part series going inside the first long-term undercover operation in the United States

Editor's Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Jack Miller. Miller is one of the few officers left alive who was directly involved in Operation Switch, the first long-term undercover sting operation in the United States. In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an email with your story. 

By Jack Miller
PoliceOne Member

This is the second part of a four-part series examining how the Las Vegas Metro Police Department (LVMPD) conducted the first long-term sting operation in the United States. 

The first part described the storefront, the personnel, and some of the training the officers received. 

Here, I will describe the operation itself.

Open for Business
The storefront was open for business, but they had to get the word out about the new fence in town. They could not use normal police resources as the other personnel of the LVMPD, the DA’s office, or the FBI were not aware of the undercover operation being conducted. Instead they used “scouts.”

Two undercover (UC) narcotics detectives were brought into the operation. They signed out a watch, a set of tires, a car radio and a typewriter from the main police evidence vault. These items had been recovered but were no longer considered evidence. They would put these items in their undercover cars and visit bars and other hangouts of the “Criminal Element.” 

They would strike up a conversation asking if the person would like to “help me out and earn ten bucks.” 

If the person agreed, the UC would tell the person “I have a stolen _____, but I owe my fence some money. If we go and you say the stuff is yours, my fence will pay you and knock a couple of bucks off my debt. After the deal, you give me the money and I pay you.” 

This would very often work. Naturally each of these visits were recorded but never used as violations. The person would always be given the phone number of the storefront but told to always call first before coming to the store. Scouts were used for two weeks, and then word of mouth was relied upon. 

The “fenced” items were brought to the safe house at night, where the scouts would use them again the next day.

Preparation and Practice
During the first two months of operation, scouting had been the primary business. There were a few true incidents where a person a scout had brought in returned to fence property he stole. The scenario was always the same. A call would be received and the person told to come in after ten minutes. This gave the storefront crew time to set up, make certain everything was working and the recorder time and date generator was attuned to the wall clock. Shotguns were loaded and made safe behind the scene and the troops quieted. The person would enter and a counterman would engage in conversation, examine the item and agree on a price. 

Often the item had serial numbers and as the item was being examined, the counterman would read into the record part of the serial number. 

“Look here, the same as my old ladies birth date, 7347.” 

If the customer had not looked at the mirror, one of the two countermen would slap the counter or drop something, causing the customer to look left.

After each incident, the team would debrief each other. One thing noted was a realization that when a gun came in to be sold, one counterman handled the gun like a police officer, safely, clearing it first and then aiming it. It was decided that he should certainly make the weapon safe, but not be as careful where it was being aimed.

There was a lot of down time between incidents during the first two months, and there were five men from three different agencies each with their own pride. To occupy some of this down time, books were read, stories told (What was the best case you ever screwed up? What is your most memorable?). Video tapes of movies were brought in, as was a foosball table. There was never a fight inside the storefront.

At the end of each day, the team would drive from the store to the safe house as they did in the mornings, with only the countermen visible while the rest hid in the back.  

The safe house team member would receive each incident tape and the items purchased as evidence. The next day he would review the video tapes, take a Polaroid photo of the customer from a TV monitor and rebook the video tape. Additionally he obtained copies of theft reports from police records, telling the clerks, if they asked him, that he was doing a study for the DA. 

With these reports and the description of the items purchased, he would have to marry the two to create a violation. If he had the true ID of the customer and a report of theft of the items sold, he would then draft a criminal complaint. This complaint would not be filed with the courts until it was reviewed by a deputy DA at the end of the operation.

In two weeks, on October 31, I’ll tell you all about the Cadillac.

About the Author
Jack Miller is the author of seven published books (Cold War Warrior, Cold War Defector, The Medal, The Master Cheat, The Peacekeepers, and Sin city Indictment). The seventh, Operation Switch, provides more detail of this first long-term undercover police sting.

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