The American Civil Liberties Union has published a report criticising the way that confidential informants (CIs) are used in the state of New Jersey. The report finds that some law enforcement agencies do not have policies regarding the proper management of CIs, while many of those that do have proper policies have failed to ensure that officers are trained to ensure that policies are adhered to. The report suggests that there are too many opportunities for deliberate or accidental misuse of CIs, leading to potential for injustice to occur.
Just three months ago, ACLU published a similar report criticising the state of Mississippi’s drug enforcement system, stating that the incentives for confidential informants need to be more carefully managed.
Such lack of confidence in the management of CIs should be a cause for great concern among law enforcement agencies. It is important that officers properly asses the risk and reliability of information provided by CIs before acting upon it. If law enforcement agencies want to ensure that this is achieved, it is vital that proper policies and procedures are in place and properly communicated to officers. Managers need to have oversight of all interaction with CIs.
In the United Kingdom, legislation and best practice has helped to ensure that CIs are managed in a safe and compliant way. Software, such as abmpegasus Source Management, helps to make sure that proper procedures are followed and that the use of CIs is fully assessed for risk and authorised accordingly.
ACLU’s report, “An Exploratory Study of the Use of Confidential Informants in New Jersey” can be found at http://www.aclu-nj.org/downloads/0611ACLUCIReport.pdf and “Numbers Game: The Vicious Cycle of Incarceration in Mississippi’s Criminal Justice System” can be found at http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/numbers-game-vicious-cycle-incarceration-mississippis-criminal-justice-system
I have to conclude that Radley Balko’s article “War on Drugs Corrupting America’s Cops” fails to fully understand the reason behind corrupt behaviour in narcotics law enforcement. It is not the “war on drugs” causing police corruption – it is process failure and lack of accountability. If processes are properly followed and senior law enforcement officers have proper oversight of covert activity, there is little opportunity for corrupt behaviour to occur. Every example that Balko uses could probably have been avoided if systems were in place to properly record and monitor covert activity.
Removing drug prohibition does not solve the problem – accountability issues will still remain. The answer is to improve management oversight across all covert operations and make it harder for police officers to stray away from acceptable behaviour.
The tensions between the operational need for confidential informants and the requirement to maintain police integrity have made themselves clear in yesterday’s San Francisco Examiner article.
Police Captains clearly see confidential informants as an essential part of policing. However, police bosses have to balance this with the need to operate in a safe, legally compliant and transparent way. The Examiner article reveals that the way in which confidential informants are managed is currently being reviewed at San Francisco Police Department. By improving management processes and officer training, SFPD will hope to reduce opportunities for police misconduct whilst still allowing the agency to benefit from the invaluable intelligence that confidential informants provide.
Newport News Police Department are apparently making positive changes to improve witness protection in the city. According to the Newport News Daily Press, the police department have introduced a Witness Protection Protocol which puts processes in place to provide protection to witnesses facing intimidation.
The protocol is intended to act as a less extreme local version of the US federal witness protection program which is run by the US Marshals Service. Funding for the protection will come from the police department’s $100,000 confidential funds which also gets used for rewarding confidential informants and undercover drug buys.
This is a good example of a law enforcement agency taking the initiative to try to get over the “no snitching” culture that is so damaging to cooperation with the police. If residents feel that police can act quickly and affectively to protect key witnesses, the fear of providing information will be diminished.
Shelby County Sheriff’s Office observed a man handing over marijuana to a confidential informant in May 2010. They then put the man’s photo and name on their ‘Most-Wanted’ website and, when he turned himself in the Sheriff’s Office sought to arrest him. Perfect case? Unfortunately not… The Sheriff’s Office has mistakenly identified the drug dealer as Kenneth Dukes, a baptist church minister. Dukes is now threatening to sue the Sheriff’s Office for the case of mistaken identity and the damage it casued to his reputation. Shelby County Sheriff’s Office responded by saying “The actual subject who sold the marijuana has a strong physical resemblance to Mr. Dukes”, according to the Shelby Count Reporter. Hopefully the office will try to get their facts right next time…
The leader of a multi-agency anti-narcotics team in Contra Costa county (California) was charged this week having allegedly been caught on film selling a pound of methamphetamine to a confidential informant. The officer had allegedly stolen the drugs from a law enforcement evidence locker, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Working in cahoots with another man, the officer is reported to have raided evidence lockers on various occasions in a bid to boost his earnings before retirement.
This is yet another example of the need to improve processes and procedures surrounding undercover narcotics operations – operations might be sensitive and confidential but this doesn’t mean they can’t be subject to good management oversight.
Two suspected drug dealers have just had their charges dropped after the Sheriff’s department decided that the confidential informant who was crucial to the case was unreliable. As reported by The News Tribune, Pierce County sheriff’s office (Washington state) decided that the case against the two men could not stand as the confidential informant‘s testimony had come under question.
It’s a pity that the Sheriff’s department hadn’t established the informant’s reliability before arresting the two men. As a result of their u-turn, the credibility of the law enforcement agency has been dented and the two men at the centre of the allegations are free to continue as they had before. The medical-marijuana cooperative that they operate has apparently opened a second site.
Assessing the credibility of confidential informants is an important and essential part of the CI management process, particularly when criminal cases depend heavily on their testimony. Law enforcement agencies should make sure that processes and procedures are in place to ensure confidential informants’ proper assessment for reliability and risk.
The Trentonian has reported that a police dispatcher for Dover Police (New Jersey) looked up criminal records of friends and relatives and revealed the identity of a confidential informant to one of his relatives. Such behaviour is clearly against law enforcement agency policy and the officer faces a four year prison term. Although the police say that his actions did not compromise any investigations, they will undoubtedly have a negative impact on citizens’ confidence in the agency’s ability to protect data and, more importantly, the identity of confidential informants.
Law enforcement agencies should learn from this that secure and reliable systems to enforce policies and protect informant data are an essential component of modern-day policing.
When several drugs cases depend on the testimony of one confidential informant, it’s fairly important to know where that informant is. The Dickinson Press reported today that Stark County (North Dakota) have lost their crucial confidential informant in a case against alleged methamphetamine trafficker, Jeanifer Dutton-Meyer. The State’s Attorney has until 11th February to track him down, but he has been missing since September!
Stories like this illustrate the point that Confidential Informants need careful management. They aren’t objects that you can lock away in an evidence room – Confidential Informants can and will do unpredictable things and it’s essential that processes are put in place to minimise the risk involved in handling informants.
Omaha World Herald has reported that a confidential informant working for the FBI and Greater Omaha Safe Streets Task Force was shot dead in a staged drugs buy that went horribly wrong. According the the article, Cesar Sanchez-Gonzalez agreed to use his South Omaha, Nebraska body shop for a drug sale to a group of suspected dealers in October. FBI agents and members of the Greater Omaha Safe Streets Task Force monitored the sale nearby. All seemed to be going smoothly until one of the men pulled a gun on Sanchez-Gonzalez, shooting him dead.
Stories like this continue to emphasise the high risks involved in using confidential informants. While occasional systems failures may remain inevitable, it is imperative that law enforcement agencies manage risks properly to ensure that the dangers are averted wherever possible.