Arms agents shift focus from gangs to individuals
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — The young man from Richmond said he had a grenade launcher with three grenades to sell for $1,000, so he texted a photo of the goods to Tehran Palmer, a buyer who had approached him through a friend.
The budding firearms dealer, 23-year-old Otis Mobley, and two friends arranged a meeting with Palmer in a parking lot near Hilltop Mall. But instead of handing over the military-grade weaponry, one of the men hoisted a semiautomatic pistol to Palmer's head and demanded his cash and car keys.
A team of local and federal agents promptly swarmed the vehicle, wounding one of the suspects in a gunbattle and arresting all three of the men. Palmer, an undercover agent for U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was uninjured.
The daytime shootout last year was more than just a difficult bust: It was the outgrowth of a strategy change by federal gun authorities, who, working on a tight budget, now concentrate on individual bad actors rather than trying to take down weapons-dealing networks.
The idea is "to do more with less," said Joseph Riehl, special agent in charge of the local office of the ATF, enforcer of the nation's gun laws.
"It's a new business model approach," Riehl said. "It's identifying the worst of the worst and then going after them directly. We're going after the shot-callers, the decision makers, instead of entire gangs, and trying to work our way in."
It's a coping mechanism for an agency often described as the neglected stepchild of federal law enforcement. With responsibility over more than 300 million guns in circulation and 137,000 federal firearms licensees - along with the explosives industry and illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco - the bureau has 2,388 special agents nationwide. That's not a lot more than the 1,600 police officers who patrol San Francisco. In the past decade, the bureau has added exactly 38 agents across the country.
In some places, budget constraints have resulted in fewer boots on the ground, and nowhere are those losses more apparent than in the Bay Area.
The agency's San Francisco field division, which extends to the Oregon border and includes the Central Valley and state of Nevada, had 127 agents in the mid-1990s. Today, even with a national outcry to clamp down on illegal firearms, 62 agents patrol the same sprawling territory.
Last year, despite the widely acknowledged existence of a pipeline of guns moving illegally into California from Nevada, the bureau's Reno office was effectively closed and its six agents reassigned. Riehl said they were needed elsewhere.
In Oakland, which has the highest crime rate in the state, about a half dozen field agents investigate cases, compared with 25 to 30 a decade ago.
"I may not need six agents in Reno right now," Riehl said, noting that some of the Nevada employees were moved to the Bay Area. "But we do need them in Stockton and Oakland today. That's where the data shows us the gun crime is."
The number of cases that the ATF has brought for prosecution has also dropped since the peak staffing years, Riehl said.
"When you have a smaller staff, you have fewer cases to present," Riehl said. "But we're hoping the cases we do bring have an impact on violent crime. Instead of trying to take down Gang X with 30 members, we'll focus on the two or three members of Gang X who are involved in the violent activity."
The agent's day-to-day job has also shifted, from making street contacts to analyzing data from behind a desk.
Palmer, now a supervising agent based in the Dublin office, no longer spends weeks trying to develop one undercover buy. He joined the Oakland office as a rookie nine years ago, when he said the directive was to "try and grab everybody who has an illegal firearm."
Now, reports from local agencies coupled with hot-spot crime sheets and data collected through ShotSpotter, the automated gunshot locator, narrow the agent's efforts.
"It's more, 'Let's focus on the places where people are using guns and the people who we know will use the crime guns,' " Palmer said.
The bureau cemented that strategy change by starting Operation Frontline, which rolled out locally in the Bay Area last year. Rather than embarking on months-long infiltrations into gangs and drug cartels, the ATF relies heavily on local intelligence to identify what authorities call the handful of criminals and gang members who account for a large percentage of gun crime.
Agents work with local and state police to help them identify gun-use patterns and pinpoint traffickers, sellers and users. The strategy relies heavily on use of undercover agents, informants and often-controversial sting operations.
In the Bay Area, Mobley was one of the first targets.
In many ways, Mobley's rap sheet made him a model target for Frontline. His criminal history dated to 2005, when he was 15 and gave a loaded gun to a cousin who was later caught with it at school. He was convicted twice as a juvenile for car theft, shot and killed a marijuana dealer in what was ruled self-defense, and was arrested twice for gun possession but never convicted.
Richmond officers who met with ATF agents said he was a member of a local gang, and they helped federal authorities pull together a "target packet" on him, Riehl said.
Palmer's undercover team made inroads by cold-calling one of Mobley's former high school classmates in search of a gun to purchase. The informant said Mobley had bragged that he'd just returned from Reno and had a box of new weapons for sale.
Weeks later, Mobley and his friends contacted an undercover agent and proposed the grenade-launcher deal. Mobley's attorneys said he never actually had a launcher or grenades - he simply texted a photo to Palmer.
In May, Mobley and one of his accomplices pleaded guilty to conspiracy to rob and assault a federal officer and were sentenced to 9 1/2 and nine years, respectively. A third defendant, who was convicted in August of robbery and assault of a federal officer, was sentenced to 12 years.
"Mobley was in our sights as an active shooter," Palmer said, "regardless of his lack of convictions. In the past, maybe an agent would have taken a look at him if he came across the radar, but he would have been low priority without a felony conviction. Now, he's a priority."
In some instances, the federal bureau's tactics have led to charges it is concocting criminal enterprises to entrap people.
In May 2012, the agency focused on Jarvis Toussaint, whom Oakland police had branded among the city's shot-callers. According to court records, undercover ATF agents offered Toussaint a deal: If they told him the location of a drug stash house loaded with 5 kilograms of cocaine, and he robbed it, they would split the proceeds.
Over the course of several days, according to transcripts of recordings, Toussaint boasted of committing a previous shooting and his involvement in similar robberies.
On the morning of the planned heist, the agents rounded up Toussaint and two other armed men and drove toward an East Oakland house that Toussaint had been led to believe was a distribution center for a Mexican cartel.
Instead of knocking over a drug den, the agents drove into a storage center's parking lot on Hegenberger Road and arrested the three. All pleaded guilty to gun and drug charges and were sent to prison.
Such ruses, however, have raised concern from federal judges and local attorneys.
Last year, a federal appeals judge in Illinois wrote in a dissent to an opinion upholding the convictions of three defendants that the stings were a "disreputable tactic" that create "an increased risk of entrapment."
In August, another judge in U.S. District Court in Chicago reviewing a case with five defendants found there was a "strong showing of potential bias" that the stings targeted racial minorities.
Paul DeMeester, an attorney for one of the men convicted in the Oakland setup, said his client had a history of drug convictions but nothing involving guns.
"In their zeal to get guns off the street, they're manufacturing crimes for people who wouldn't commit them without their inducement and encouragement," DeMeester said.
Facing a 20 year-sentence, DeMeester said, his client pleaded guilty to accept a term of six years.
"The ATF is planting the seeds and saying, 'Would you do this?' " DeMeester said. "It's just wrong."
Helen Dunkel, an ATF spokeswoman, stressed that agents always give the suspects an opportunity to back out and said the practice fulfilled the mission of the agency.
"If we know these are the people who would commit the most violent crimes with guns, why wouldn't we take them out?" she said. "Someone willing to commit an armed home invasion, and possibly kill people to steal drugs and cash, is someone who is willing to commit serious violence in the streets."