• SNITCHING: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice
  • U.S. Attorney General's Guidelines on the FBI's Use of Confidential Human Sources
  • Sarah Stillman, The Throwaways, The New Yorker (2012) (article on the use of juvenile informants)

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

"You can't trust cops!"

This is true. You can't trust anyone. Totally! All the time! Now try and live your life trusting no one. The simple truth is we make judgements on a daily basis on who we should trust and to what extent. And when it comes to the police, we do trust them - to keep us safe - but that trust is conditional and trust must be continually earned. In this piece we will take an in-depth look at some of the issues affecting the credibility of law enforcement including that which songwriter the late Harry Chapin referred to as "...a sociological phenomena that afflicts the men in blue in America..."

People do not trust the police for many reasons. Policing is, for want of a better term, 'a sexy business' and by this I mean that the majority of people are attracted to it. It is interesting, exciting; it involves people at their best and worst. It makes for great stories and people love stories. Policing makes for great television and great movies and so people are heavily exposed to all its facets. And at the end of the day cops are just people with all the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of us. The main difference between the police and others being is that as a group police officers are under continuous scrutiny. Their faults and failings are continually the subject of media reporting. What happens in law enforcement is we take ordinary men and woman and ask them to do an extremely difficult job and then criticise them when they do it wrong. So before the legislatures, lawyers and academics get too excited about what I will say about law enforcement officers be aware you are complicit in what goes wrong and your time in the spotlight approaches.

We will look at how police behaviour in relation to informants erodes the trust of the public and try and identify the underlying causes. In his song 'Copper' Chapin alludes to police officers being bribed by citizens. The matter of bribery and corruption in law enforcement is a long one that rarely makes for pleasant reading. In informant management police officers deal with criminals who have access to amounts of money and lifestyles that many a law enforcement officer would envy. Policing is often not a well paid job and the temptations are there. When police officers start mixing with criminals in the grey area that is informant management the risks of corruption increase many-fold. Statistics bandied about in UK law enforcement alluded to the fact that as much as 90% of police corruption related to informant management. Remaining on a financial theme officers are often required to pay informants significant amounts of money in return for the information provided. This money is often paid with limited supervision. The temptation for officers is great. Ten for you; ten for me! It happens.

Society wants to be safe and more importantly to feel safe. No more prevalent is this than within American culture. More so than most other Western societies, the US public is subjected to an inordinate amount of fear messages. Citizens want to know that the bad guys are being caught. This puts pressure on elected representatives, who put pressure on police chiefs, who put pressure on police commanders who put pressure on police officers -- get results. (The bad stuff always moves downward!) Whether anyone involved or not including the police officers themselves they are under huge pressure to get results. If they don’t get results they will be criticised. Their promotion prospects will be curtailed, they may get moved to a less desirable posting or the pay may be reduced. The pressure comes on to get results - at any cost.

Furthermore, police officers get tired of "the bad guys" getting away with murder, robberies and destroying lives through the sale of drugs. They get fed up with the inability of the judicial system to deal with these individuals and get annoyed when highly paid lawyers get acquittals based on what they perceive as ‘technicalities’. Is there a temptation to bend the rules? You bet there is.

And if you want another hundred reasons why law enforcement officers make a mess of managing informants I can give you them but maybe the question that needs greater consideration is “Why does the system allow cops to behave in inappropriate ways?” Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes: "If you put good people in bad systems you get bad results."
So while it may be easy to blame the cops, and in certain circumstances some cops may well merit blame, the major problem facing US society in relation to managing informants is not those directly involved it is the system that has evolved and it is that system that needs fundamental change.