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Over 100 teenagers in California spent a recent Saturday asking adults to buy them alcohol. An outbreak of underage drinking? Nope– just the opposite. These kids gave up their time to serve as Youth Decoys in the middle of a sting.
According to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, undercover teens are among the most effective tools they have to curb underage drinking. In a recent coordinated, day-long effort, with over 100 police and sheriffs departments across California, young decoys netted 544 arrests… and got a unique window into a possible career.
I got to ride along in an unmarked car to watch the action.
At one point, we are driving towards a startled man in a black Chevy. The sergeant jumps out of the driver’s seat and runs towards the suspect on foot, while hidden officers in bulletproof vests swarm in, cutting off the man’s escape routes. His crime: buying a six pack of Coors Light for an undercover teen.
I spoke with 18-year-old Daniel Gardener. “I’m the decoy– I’m the guy that messes up people’s days I guess.” Gardener’s undercover with the Alameda County Sheriffs. The officers just arrested a middle-aged man in a sweat suit. The violator, a guy named Fred, is the fourth person busted for buying alcohol for a minor at this location in the past hour and a half. Fred has his reasons.
I heard him tell Gardener, “I’m gonna tell you why I did it. You’re the same height as my son… and you look kinda like him– you white, though. But you look kinda like him– same build, you feel me?” he said.
Even though Fred is facing a possible $1,000 fine and 24 hours of community service, he praises the Youth Decoy who set him up saying, “Hey thank you young man, you’re a good actor, dude.”
Let’s meet another cast member of this youth production. Lisset Araugio is 16, but is no stranger to the game. “They call me, ‘the veteran’” she said.
This is Araugio’s third year as a youth decoy, where she works on tobacco stings– going into corner-stores and buying flavored cigars, called Swishers. Araugio told me how she plays it:
“I usually walk in the store, I give them a smile and I say, ‘Oh, can I get a Swisher sweet?’ And then I say, ‘Please.’ And if they give them to me, I say, ‘Thank you, and have a nice day.’ And I smile.”
That’s cold blooded. Evidently, sometimes being a youth decoy means putting duty before empathy.
“This lady, she didn’t speak any English — I was talking with her in Spanish,” said Araugio. “And then when she got the citation she was like, ‘Can you please tell them that they’re going to kick me out of my job because I did this.’ And I was like, ‘I’m sorry but next time you should be more careful.’ And she’s like, ‘Please help me1’ And she got so mad she started crying,” she said.
All that drama and a $200 – $1000 fine may seem like a severe penalty for selling tobacco to a minor. Back at the alcohol decoy operation, Sergeant Scheuller says these stings sometimes catch people engaged in worse crimes.
“A lot of times, what we find is the people who are usually willing to buy alcohol for a minor– a lot of times they’ve been involved in other criminal activity,” said Scheuller.
Of the more than 500 arrests, authorities say 60 individuals went to jail on crimes ranging from drunk driving, illegal drug possession, to resisting arrest. The program’s objective is to make the streets safer. Sergeant Scheuller has noticed another benefit too. Recruitment.
“So maybe you might wanna think of pursuing a career in law enforcement? You could do this as your job. And get paid… It’s the best job in the world if you ask me,” he told me with a nudge.
Decoys like Daniel Gardener, who we heard being commended for his acting ability earlier, don’t need persuading. He intends to be a sheriff. He knows some kids who have gone from the decoy program straight into the police academy.
For me, trapping somebody who thinks they’re doing me a favor, is too much. It makes me feel callous and dishonest. But as Fred, the guy who bought the six pack can tell you, a citation does get the message across. “So everybody makes mistakes in life, this was mine, you don’t have to worry about me ever doing this again,” he said.