Supervising Police Informants, Part 1

Police informants are a means to an end

 


 

Matthew O'Deane, PhD | Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Police face daily challenges in penetrating a popular culture that warns against cooperating with law enforcement within and outside the gang sub-culture. A stop snitching mentality requires that we, as police officers, inspire a keep talking mentality in the communities in which we work.

To do this, your officers, especially if you manage an investigative unit, will be pushing you to approve individuals to utilize as informants to combat gangs. Confidential informants (CIs), sometimes called confidential sources (CS) or confidential reliable sources (CSRs) are resources utilized by law enforcement agencies across the country on a daily basis used to solve gang related-crimes.

The only people that gang members talk to about their gang crimes are often times other gang members. When a gang member commits a violent crime, it s highly probable that other gang members are present that witnessed the crime first hand and/or participated in the crime. As such, as a police supervisor your officers will be dealing with criminal informants on a regular basis, which can cause significant problems if not handled correctly.

Seeking Them Out

Informants can come from anywhere, so always have your eyes and ears open to identify anyone who may want to talk to you about the local gangs. I like to ask gang informants, What was it that made you decide to cooperate? Or: If you were me, trying to recruit you into working with the police, what would you do and say to make that happen? The answers may surprise you.

A Nuestra Familia member told me, you have to do your homework. I d be inclined to look at school records and find the most intelligent of the group. If you see someone with potential of elevating his lifestyle, you can make a proposal: See what you can do to open doors, help get grants, etc.

When considering signing up an informant, do your homework. Know not only your potential informant, but also know his/her family and close friends. The more you know about the gang member, the more leverage you will have on them down the road. It s important to develop a profile on your informant will they be useful on a long or short term basis and what is their level in the gang (shooter, drug supplier, etc.).

What is the role of your informant? Can they help you solve one case or a series of cases? Does the informant have street credit? Are they an OG or an occasional associate? What can the informant offer you, what are you authorized to give them, what are your capabilities and restraints?

Before putting any informant to work regardless of how you classify them, it s suggested that you take some time to follow them, shadow them for a period in time to see what they do when they are not around you. Finding out their daily habits will help you down the road if your relationship with the informant goes bad and you now need to prepare a case against your informant.

When interviewing a potential gang informant, ascertain what he/she knows about the gang. It s important to determine the value or worth of the informant and place more emphasis on the informants that you feel can benefit your investigations in a more significant manner. Can the informant introduce officers to other gang members actively putting in work for the gang? Do they have information about past, present or future gang crimes? Finally, will they be a potential testifying informant?

While cultivating gang informants, it s important that investigators understand the common motivations for their informants providing information. It s also important to note that although the cornerstone of gang suppression efforts many times is the cultivation and use of informant's, the tactic does often times have high costs in terms of maintenance, time, protection, preparation for court testimony, and possible eventual protection and relocation.

Working with Informants
The initial debriefing process with a potential informant is often when potential cooperation is being evaluated. At the end of the meeting no further obligation or benefit is required of either side.

A police officer, the supervisor, investigating officer, detective or prosecutor s investigator should witness and participate in all communications with an informant when possible. In addition, if the informant has an attorney, they must be present when you talk to the informant, unless both the informant and the attorney consent to the attorney s absence in advance. Whenever practical, any interview with an informant should be recorded. When meeting with informants, officers shouldalways communicate in a professional manner. Informants are not your friends. They re useful to you because they re criminals. Don t lose focus.

An interview with an informant or codefendant should be detailed and extensively cover all aspects of the individual s proposed cooperation and future testimony, including the informant s background, his or her degree of criminal involvement and any other discoverable information the informant may have to respond to while testifying.

Particular attention must be paid to indications of the informant s credibility or lack thereof. Should reason to doubt the validity of the informant s information develop--or should you as the police or prosecution begin to question the honesty of your informant--make sure those concerns are addressed and investigated. If your informant lies to you, and you don t immediately address the integrity issue, you re setting yourself up for problems down the road.

It s critical that any agreements with informants be in writing, and that they be fully explained to the potential informant and their attorney--on video, to avoid any claims of promises that were never made. This allows the final cooperation agreement to be customized and tailored to the needs of all parties. It provides specific details about the cases in which the informant will assist with.

There should never be any side agreements other than those set forth in the written agreement, eliminating the wink-and-a-nod agreements between law enforcement and the potential informant that often create confusion down the road. We want to eliminate any misunderstandings, impressions or confusion at an early stage to avoid wasting time and resources before an agreement is reached.

How to Use Them
Once we have identified the need for an informant in a specific case or to provide information about a specific gang, and a professional relationship between the gang member informant and the gang investigators has been established, it is important that the relationship and the informant be managed in a very methodological and professional manner to minimize the risks associated with utilizing a gang member as an informant.

Remember: Gang informants are useful to the police because they are criminals, and they hang out with and have information about other criminals. As such, managing informants can be a challenging assignment. It can also be very rewarding and help solve crimes that otherwise would never be solved.

The accountability process in handling informants needs to be improved in many departments. Officers should use common sense. Some officers have allowed their informant s access to the police department or information they don t need to know.

Clearly establishing that you re in control by setting the rules, then ensuring that they re followed, is very important. The officer must be in control at all times, not the informant. Remember: Informants may be violating laws and committing crimes while working for you. This may put you in a situation where you have to blackball the informant, making them unavailable for use.

Officers must be aware that all police departments have policies relating to informants and that they will need to follow their department s policy to the letter when meeting with informants, giving payments, covering expenses and keeping the relationship professional.

Many police officers and even their supervisors at times have been disciplined or fired for failing to follow guidelines in this area. Officers can protect themselves with a series of checks and balances and good documentation on all contacts and activity related to your informant.

Some who are allowed to remain free while working as a informant commit more crimes. Some return to crime after shortened prison terms as a result of their deals. Some try to frame others or tell prosecutors what they think they want to hear. To counter any of these potential problems, investigate everything your informant tells you and verify it via other independent sources to check the accuracy of the information provided.

Another way to protect yourself from false accusations is to follow your departments policies and procedures that demand that an officer always have another officer witness payments and meetings between officers and informant s to limit the possibility of false complaints or accusations. It is also suggested that officers have at least one same sex officer present when working with informants of the opposite sex. It s also suggested that officers avoid using juveniles as sources of information if at all possible.

Conclusion
The primary purpose for using informants, especially those who are themselves involved in committing crimes, is to develop a criminal case against the more culpable criminals (e.g. the heads of criminal organizations and the more serious offenders). Using an informant merely to increase the number of arrests without an effort to prosecute the most culpable offenders is seldom justified. We typically want to work our way up, get someone more significant than the person we want to work as an informant.

Gang informants are not a panacea. Nor are they the ultimate solution to the gang problem, and their crime-fighting benefits must be kept in perspective and continually maintained to be beneficial.




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Matthew O'Deane, PhDMatthew O’Deane has been a police officer in California since 1992. He's currently an investigator for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office where he has worked since May of 2002. O’Deane is a former police officer, detective and sergeant of the National City (Calif.) Police Department from 1992 to 2002. He holds a PhD in public policy from Walden University and is an adjunct professor for Kaplan and National Universities and the University of Phoenix in their respective criminal justice programs. O’Deane has also written three books on the subject of gangs: the Gang Investigators Handbook (2007) from Paladin Press, Gangs: Theory, Practice and Research (2010) from LawTech Custom publishing, and Gang Injunctions and Abatements (2011) from CRC Press.

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