How Police Make Up Code Names for Raids and Drug Busts

Sting names like Operation #Relentless are not so random.

If you watch television news, or read Internet media sites, you’ll notice most outlets skew toward sensational stories. Drug busts, police raids, high profile crimes, corporate takedowns, celebrity sex-tapes, and murder in the suburbs––these are the tragic narratives that drive robust viewer-ratings and high click-through-rates. 

People love to watch the world fall apart. Consequently, it may seem that law-enforcement covert-ops are given names that demand media attention, pump up police morale, and put down the crook.

This week in Florida, the Martin County Sheriff’s department arrested dozens of suspected drug traffickers in what was reportedly deemed Operation #RELENTLESS. The bust had its own social media hashtag. The designation could be interpreted in a multitude of ways: Florida cops are relentlessly fighting crime, so bad guys beware. Or, perhaps: The opioid epidemic killing thousands of users is a relentless problem American families face each day.

A 2007 investigation into bookies fixing the outcomes of horse races was called Operation Crypton. It all seems so ... foolhardy. But is it?

According to the BBC, the militarized-police-operation monikers––at least in the United Kingdom––are chosen from a list of previously approved code-names: 

“The aim is to choose names that are completely neutral so they will hopefully be totally unrelated to the case. This system dates back to the 1980s.”

Indeed, it would be difficult for most civilians, or anyone really, to infer any connection to a sting on the five families of the American mob simply from the name “Operation Sun Apple"––the multi-agency mob takedown led by Joseph Pistone, alias Donnie Brasco, a crime narrative that would go on to become a film starring Johnny Depp. But the Sun-Apple appellation, according to Pistone, was inspired by the geographic locations in which the investigation would go down: Sun-soaked Miami, Florida, and New York City, a/k/a The Big Apple.

The code-naming of police operations could be more closely related to particular cases than authorities let on. Or the naming may be conceived of as ego fuel for a macho police force. Either way, the dramatized code names for probes into the criminal underground that sound like rejected titles for a Tom Clancy novel do one thing unerringly: Alert television news producers and Internet site editors that a sensationalistic headline has been provided for their dispersal.