That car someone left running in the middle of the street? Don't get involved.

Idle Hands 

That car someone left running in the middle of the street? Don't get involved.

Two years ago, Charlton Bradford sat at the bus stop at 45th Street and Troost with his friend Clyde.

Bradford liked to hang out at the bus stop because prostitutes who frequented the area sometimes gave him a dollar or two. At 47, Bradford had been in trouble — he'd served time for robbery and possession of a controlled substance — but those days were behind him. He worked odd jobs and he didn't have to get up early. It was 1:30 a.m. at the bus stop, and the air was pleasant.

A car rolled past, its windows down. From inside, a woman's voice yelled, "Let me out, pussy!"

"Hold up, baby," said the man who was driving.

The car slowed to a stop. The woman jumped out and started walking toward 46th Street. Then the man got out and followed her, yelling, "Baby, wait!" The couple disappeared around the corner, leaving the car running in the middle of the street.

Bradford says he and Clyde watched the car idle for more than 20 minutes. "We think it's a domestic-violence thing, right? We waited awhile and we were like, 'You think they still down there, fighting? You think he killed the chick?'"

Bradford got up and peered into the car, looking for whatever had made the couple act so crazy. "I'm thinking it's a crime scene," he says. "I was looking for booze."

It didn't occur to him to steal the idling car, Bradford says. "I been out of jail for two years. I work where I can, odds and ends — it ain't forced me to go steal."

On the other hand, Bradford knew that plenty of kids in the neighborhood had a different outlook — and he saw a few of them walking toward him. The car was idling in front of an empty lot. Bradford says he got in to move it. "I was gonna pull it into the lot, so there'd be no police action down there," he says.

Instead, the engine shut off and officers swarmed the car. They charged Bradford with first-degree tampering and locked him up in the Jackson County Detention Center to wait for his trial.

Bradford had fallen for what police refer to as a "kill-switch sting": An officer drives the car to a location and leaves it running; more officers watch from an out-of-sight location, equipped with a remote control that shuts off the engine, trapping a would-be car thief at the scene.

Sometimes an officer in civilian clothes will stumble out of the bait car, pretending to be drunk, and leave it running. Sometimes the decoy driver will leave it running at a gas station, pretending to be a customer going inside for a moment. Sometimes police stage a fight. "Whatever it takes to make it look like a situation that's not out of the norm," one police department source tells the Pitch.

Though the Kansas City Police Department says such scenarios look normal, Leon Munday at the Jackson County Public Defender's office disagrees.

Munday says he doesn't want to walk into a jewelry store and see diamonds on the counter or enter a bank and see cash sitting around, baiting him to steal. "When is it the police department's job to create crimes and criminals where they wouldn't otherwise exist?" he says. "It's just nutty."

Munday also has a problem with the areas in which the stings have been conducted.

"If you're going to do it at 45th and Troost, do it at 64th and Ward Parkway, too. Do it at the Barstow School and Rockhurst High School and tempt the haves as well as the have-nots," Munday says.

Sgt. Steve Seward of the Central Patrol Division's property crimes unit provided the Pitch with a list of 21 general areas where his officers have used the bait cars. Seven of the blocks Seward named were east of Troost, and seven were in a midtown corridor stretching from 34th Street and Jefferson south to the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus. Seward also mentioned "numerous locations downtown," "several convenience stores" and "Broadway and Westport" in the department's sting radius.

KCPD spokesman Rich Lockhart estimates that cops have staged six stings this year and ran as many as 15 in 2006. He says there's no formal review process, but the department occasionally reports its results to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which provides the cars.

Police detectives counter Munday's argument, saying that they run the stings in areas with high rates of car theft because the have-nots are most harmed by such crimes. "Most cars that are stolen are older cars," Lockhart says. "And a lot of people who own older cars are already spread as thin as they can be. When the means of getting to work is gone, where do you come up with a couple thousand dollars to make up for it? Food, diapers, rent, utilities — that's what suffers."

The operations might not be worth the trouble. "Our success rate is very low, actually," says Sgt. Bill Mahoney of the Central Patrol Division.

Munday defended Bradford on his day in court, when a jury found him guilty of tampering.

On April 23, he faced Jackson County Circuit Judge William Mauer for sentencing.

State prosecutors Kenneth Garrett and Robert Sanders asked Mauer to impose the fullest possible sentence — 10 years — because Bradford had been a "prior and persistent felon."

Munday protested, "The punishment should fit the crime. This was a setup. There was no loss." He asked Mauer to "send a message" that the bait-car stings were unfair by letting Bradford off with time served — the 57 days he'd already spent in county jail.

Because a jury had already convicted Bradford of the crime, Mauer said, he refused to make a judgment on whether the sting was fair.

He noted that Bradford had completed probation after serving five years at various state prisons and had kept his record clean since then.

Mauer sentenced Bradford to four years in prison but suspended the sentence by imposing five years' probation. Bradford was free to go. If he violates his probation, he will have to serve the four years.

Detectives who had come to watch the sentencing were not pleased. "Homicide, kidnapping, almost every burglary is aided with the use of a stolen car," one said. "Hopefully we won't see a trend in judges letting burglars off."

But Mauer had made it clear that his decision had nothing to do with Munday's arguments against the fairness of kill-switch operations. "Remember, Munday," Mauer said, "I was not swayed by the sting-operation part of this thing."

Witnesses to dramatic scenes involving abandoned, idling cars should consider themselves warned. Lockhart says police don't plan to stop using the bait cars any time soon.

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