Monday, August 18, 2008

Sheriff tactic so cartoonish it's scary

What does it say about the intelligence quotient of our society at large when the half-wit police tactics of “The Simpsons” work so well in the daily life of the Second City?

When I learned Sunday that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart managed to get a few dozen people with outstanding warrants for their arrests by staging a phony tax rebate, all I could think of was that Dart is now the equivalent of Chief Clancy Wiggum, and that we now have a few real-life Homer Simpsons walking about.

FANS OF “THE Simpsons” television program remember the episode from several years ago that started off with the mythical Springfield P.D. sending out letters promising a “free boat” to everybody who showed up at the police station at a certain time.

Homer: Up and away in my beautiful, my beautiful motorboat! Da da da da!
Bart: But we didn’t enter any police raffle.
Homer: That doesn’t matter. The important thing is we won.

It turns out that the people who received the letters were the ones who had outstanding warrants (Homer had 235 unpaid parking tickets), and police arrested every single person who showed up – before beating each of them, in the words of Chief Wiggum, “to the full extent of the law.”

Now I am not aware of any evidence that the Cook County Sheriff’s police administered similar beatings in recent weeks. But otherwise, the television tactic was applied to real life.

THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE newspaper reported that Dart’s staff coordinated a ruse by which they rented out office space, then sent letters to people with warrants for crimes ranging from automobile moving violations to unpaid child support.

Those letters told people they were eligible for a check providing them with an additional income tax rebate. As if the one check they may have received earlier this year (if they bothered to file an income tax return with the IRS) wasn’t sufficient, they were given the hope of thinking they were someone special who was entitled to more.

Of course, I can’t help but wonder if the fact that federal officials are seriously considering giving second rebate checks of a few hundred dollars to certain taxpayers may have confused some of these individuals into thinking that action was being taken.

But unlike the first rebate check where one merely had to file their tax return, then have the check mailed directly to their home (or direct deposited into their bank account, if they so chose), this “letter” told people they had to show up at a specific address to collect their additional rebate check.

ABOUT 100 PEOPLE either showed up at the office or made calls to telephone numbers provided in the letter inquiring about the check. In all, 66 of those people were arrested, either at the office or at their home addresses which police learned of through the sting.

Now some people could be impressed with those totals. After all, that’s 66 people now in the criminal justice system who were not there just a few weeks ago.

But the sheriff’s police, according to the Tribune, actually sent about 5,000 letters to people with outstanding warrants. Of those, just over 1 percent actually wound up being arrested.

When viewed in that context, “Operation Rebate and Switch” was a flop. Not that the sheriff’s police are complaining.

SHERIFF DART WENT so far Sunday as to hold a press conference outside the storefront that was used in the scam so he could boast of his “accomplishment” for the deadly-dull Sunday television newscasts and Monday morning newspapers.

In his stunt to brag about his office’s stunt, Dart said it was the “greed” of those with arrest warrants that caused them to overcome any skepticism they might have had about receiving an unsolicited letter promising them money.

Dart also liked to brag about the fact that many of those who showed up at the “office” were driving on invalid licenses, which gave police the legal authority to impound their cars – requiring the motorists to either pay huge fees to get their cars back or risk losing them at auction.

In all, those fees generated about $6,000, which he said covered about three-quarters of the cost of maintaining a phony accountant’s office for people to collect non-existent checks.

OF COURSE, THE only way a stunt like this works in the real world is if one is dealing with people who aren’t too bright to begin with.

At least one person still expected to get a tax rebate check even after being told he was under arrest. The Tribune reported that Dart said the person wanted to know if he could “sign over” his rebate check to the county to cover the cost of posting bail.

That’s a case of reality impersonating fiction. At the very least, that man ought to be nicknamed “Homer,” as the patriarch of the cartoon clan kept persistently asking for his motorboat, even as the Springfield P.D. did their best impersonation of the Chicago police treatment of protesters outside the ’68 Democratic convention.


EDITOR’S NOTES: More than five dozen people in the Chicago area now face criminal charges (,0,6647828.story) after being caught in a sting operation where they thought they were getting a second tax rebate check.

The Cook County Jail has a few dozen more inmates due to the sheriff’s police new ( sting.

“The Simpsons” television program has managed to survive for nearly two decades on the air ( because, at times, it eerily mirrors real life.

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