'Mr. Big' sting: Police operation explained
Published Thursday, July 31, 2014 9:47AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, July 31, 2014 3:55PM EDT
The Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling Thursday calling for stricter parameters on so-called “Mr. Big” sting operations may have you wondering what they are, exactly.
During such operations, undercover police officers pretend to be members of a fake criminal organization. They attempt to “recruit” a suspect to the fake gang in order to get him or her to confess to prior crimes.
The officers slowly build their suspect’s trust, and ask him to do increasingly important jobs for the organization. In the end, the officers introduce their suspect to the fictitious leader of the organization. The so-called “Mr. Big” then tells the suspect that the gang can help him, but only if he recounts his entire criminal experience.
Rather than landing the potential gangster a role in a criminal organization, however, those confessions can send them to jail.
Former Toronto homicide detective Mark Mendelson, who has played the role of Mr. Big in a sting operation, says the investigative technique “can be very effective.”
Such operations are usually confined to homicides and serial sexual assaults, and are often used as “a last resort” because of the time and expense involved, he said.
Thursday’s ruling does not prohibit police from continuing to employ the tactic when needed. However, violent or aggressive tactics employed to convince the suspect must be scaled back.
“What the court is saying is, this whole prospect of faking homicides, faking beatings, and things of this nature, may put undue pressure or duress on the individual to make a confession just so he can get ingratiated into this organization,” Mendelson told CTV News Channel.
Police have also argued that such operations have helped them eliminate people from their list of suspects.
Opponents of the practice say suspects may admit to things that they have not done, in an attempt to please the recruiters and gain acceptance to the gang.
Criminal defence lawyer Leo Russomanno says the Mr. Big sting is a “particularly ingenious” technique that offers “powerful incentives” for a suspect to confess to a crime.
“Sometimes the police may not have other avenues,” Russomanno told News Channel.
“But I think what the court rightly recognized is that the spectre of wrongful convictions means that the police forces should really proceed with great restraint when deciding to employ this technique.”
According to Russomanno, lawyers, judges and jurors all can have difficulty understanding why someone would give a false confession.
The top court’s decision does not mean every confession secured in Mr. Big stings are inadmissible, he said. However, a court must weigh the danger of a false confession and concerns over potential police abuses when deciding how to pursue a case.
“It’s going to make it more difficult than it was previously to have these statements admitted,” Russomanno said.