Over 100 teenagers spent a recent Saturday outside liquor stores across the state of California, asking adults to buy them alcohol. An outbreak of teen drinking? Just the opposite. These kids were part of a statewide effort to keep alcohol away from the under-21 set.
Volunteer Youth Decoys are recruited from high schools, sold on the idea that they can help "clean up the streets." The teens just need to complete a brief training, and get their parents to sign off on it.
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 rode along in an unmarked car to watch the action. At one point, we were driving towards a startled man in a black Chevy. The sergeant jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran towards the suspect on foot, while out of sight officers in bulletproof vests swarmed in, cutting off the man’s escape routes.
His crime: buying a six pack of Coors Light for an undercover teen.
“I’m the decoy-- I’m the guy that messes up people’s days I guess," says 18-year-old Daniel Gardener.
Gardener, who is plainclothes and not wearing a bulletproof vest, is 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, as he explains to 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're white, though. But you look kinda like him-- same build, you feel me?”
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 says.
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.
“I usually walk in the stores, 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, being a youth decoy means putting duty before empathy.
“This lady, she didn’t speak any English -- I was talking to her in Spanish,” recalls 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 me!’ And she got so mad she started crying."
All that drama, plus a $200 to $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 that are willing to buy alcohol for a minor -- a lot of times they’ve been involved in other criminal activity,” says Scheuller.
According to the statewide agency that sponsored these operations, about 10 percent of people cuffed today actually went to jail on crimes ranging from drunk driving, illegal drug possession, to resisting arrest. Apart from sending people to jail, Sergeant Scheuller says the Youth Decoy program also brings some kids into the force.
“So maybe you might wanna think of pursuing a career in law enforcement?" Sergeant Scheuller asks me with a nudge. "You could do this as your job. And get paid. It’s the best job in the world if you ask me.”
Decoys like Daniel Gardener 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 Fred, the guy who bought the six pack, says a citation does get the message across: “Everybody makes mistakes in life, this was mine, you don’t have to worry about me ever doing this again."
This story was produced by Youth Radio.