A police sting operation where unattended purses, wallets and envelopes of cash are placed in public view, leading to the possible arrests of people who pick them up, is attracting criticism from lawmakers who say it is unfair.
Lawmakers, advocates and some law enforcement experts argue the undercover tactic, known as “Operation Lucky Purse,” is ineffective, counterproductive and wasteful.
And it’s possibly even illegal, said state Assemblywoman Grace Meng, of Flushing. Meng said she was so “horrified” by reports about people in her district who were caught in the middle of the sting that she has drafted legislation to ban it.
Police place the unattended items in public view and then wait for unsuspecting people to pick them up. Once they do, and neglect to immediately report it to police, they are arrested.
Flushing police set up the sting at a local bank ATM, leaving an envelope full of money sticking out of a purse.
A pastor picked it up with the intention of returning it, Meng said, but cops pounced on him as soon as he left. He was later let go, but only after he showed police a Bible he was carrying, according to Meng.
David Hawkins wasn’t as lucky. In July, Hawkins picked up $109 from a purse at the same ATM, but ditched it after he saw a police cruiser parked nearby. He was arrested anyway and charged with attempted petty larceny, but was later discharged, according to the Queens District Attorney’s office.
"What the police did was not right," Hawkins told the Daily News. "You don't try to tempt citizens into committing crimes.”
Even if Hawkins did have nefarious intentions, the NYPD isn't going to catch the criminals it truly wants with this crime-fighting effort, said Joe Pollini, a retired NYPD detective and professor at John Jay College.
"I don't think it’s a good idea, or a practical way to deal with these things," said Pollini. “You got to really try to target the down-to-earth hardcore criminal."
Operation Lucky Purse was created in 2006 to bust subway crooks and arrested more than 200 people that year. Police later had to shake up the operation because many of its suspects were discharged due to faulty legal ground.
"It’s ill advised, it’s counterproductive and it violates people's rights," said Donna Lieberman, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has represented two people arrested under the sting. In both cases, they were acquitted.
NYPD did not respond to numerous requests for comment.