The job requirements could hardly be more off-putting: Hang out in dark, deserted places and try to entice sexual predators. And yet, according to those who study law enforcement, the female officers who are pressed into decoy work couldn't be more keen.
“Going into my research, I thought they must hate this, standing around waiting for men to pick them up or abuse them in some way,” said Mary Dodge, criminal justice programs director at the University of Colorado Denver. “To my surprise, they love it. It takes them out of the drudgery of the job and gives them experience in undercover work, a field mostly dominated by men.”
This week, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair went out of his way to praise the undercover female officers deployed around Christie Pits to catch the serial attacker who had been sexually assaulting women in the area. “[They] went out into that community and put themselves at risk, knowing if they were successful in their mission, they could be the victim of an assault,” Mr. Blair told reporters.
But who are the women who volunteer for the dangerous role and under what circumstances do investigators put them to use?
The deployment of female officers as decoys for johns cruising for prostitutes is a time-honoured investigative technique in most police forces, but its use to lure a serial sexual attacker is less common.
“It’s pretty rare to put a female officer to see if she can lure the suspect in – it’s not done every day, for sure,” said former Toronto Police sex-crimes detective Dave Perry. “It’s risky business, even with the enforcement against johns. It’s not always the Pretty Woman-type clients who are showing up for these kinds of activities. You could be dealing with the next very violent offender intent on having sex for free and using a weapon and everything else.”
In this case, however, the greater risk to the community outweighed the potential risk to officers, according to Mr. Perry, now co-CEO of Investigative Solutions Network, a private investigations firm. “This had all the earmarks of a serial offender who wasn’t going to stop, all the earmarks of someone who would escalate,” he said. “When you get someone so active in such a short period of time, he’s not going to be content to change either the location or the frequency of his attacks. Obviously, he was a guy of great concern.”
Toronto Police did not elaborate on whether any undercover officers were assaulted in the course of the arrest of a 15-year-old suspect last Saturday night, only that he was caught moments after approaching a woman from behind and sexually assaulting her. He faces 14 counts of sexual assault and two counts of criminal harassment. His name cannot be released under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
While the identities of the officers involved are not yet public, certain details remain constant among investigations using decoys. First, they are trained specifically for the job, many taking an undercover course offered through Toronto Police Services. “It’s an unnerving job, but you’re taught how to stay cool, how to do everything on the legal up-and-up,” said Sylvie Parent, a former Toronto Police detective who has worked as a decoy. “But it works. I did catch a lot of bad guys doing undercover work.”
The other constant is an excess of safety precautions. It’s safe to say that the female officers deployed in Christie Pits had hordes of backup stationed close by. During her research for “Puttin’ on the Sting,” a paper that gives female officers perspectives on decoy assignments, Dr. Dodge observed back-up officers dressed as homeless people and cab drivers so they could keep a close eye on their decoy colleagues. “It’s an important part,” she said. “There was one particular case with a particular police department that did not mic or give a weapon to the decoy. They were in a parking lot and a guy reached out the window and started dragging her into the car. They had a couple officers hanging around pretending to be bums, and they intervened, thankfully. That was a scary incident.”
It’s unclear whether any such incident took place in Christie Pits. Only one thing is certain given the scant details available, according to Mr. Perry. “I got to tell you it’s one of the best pieces of police work I’ve seen in a long time,” he said of the Christie Pits arrest. “These guys are very hard to catch.”