• 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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Friday, January 14, 2011

Why does 'snitching' get such a bad rap?

If we are to start to understand what is wrong with the way in which informants are managed we have to first start to examine the whole concept of using informants and how we, as people, are likely to perceive their use. Being an informant is intrinsically linked to the act of betraying the group (tribe) to which the informant belongs: de facto the individual causes harm to their group for the benefit of another group. From a human 'survival' perspective this act is destructive though to fully comprehend this statement we must return to the days when we lived in tribal groupings. Despite the fact that this maybe many years ago we are still to a greater extent conditioned by the way in which people lived then. If one of our tribe did not fully contribute to the group or worse 'betrayed' the tribe, then the tribe and all in it were less likely to survive; hence, the need for loyalty in the tribe and the ostracising of those who were disloyal. This perception that betrayal of any sort is wrong has been reinforced by the fact that majority of people in modern western democracies are familiar with the story of the betrayal of Jesus to the Romans by Judas. Given the significant number of people that look to the Bible for moral guidance, it can hardly be thought strange that society finds betrayal abhorrent. [As an aside, an alternative perspective on this story with real relevance to this whole debate Judas was merely a law abiding citizen who gave information on a dangerous subversive who was trying to undermine the legitimate Roman government. Truth is out there somewhere but perception is everything.] Furthermore, we are all taught well by our peers in kindergarten: "You don’t snitch to the teacher."

Society in general is based on shared values and trust; snitching undermines this and leads to the perception that it is damaging to the fabric of our society. Finally, add to that the fact that the very nature of informing requires deceit at so many levels and we start to understand why snitching starts out with a “bad rap.” All that said, regardless of how prevalent these beliefs may be they are all up for debate!

So if we start that as a baseline many consider using informants wrong, then we must ask what do law enforcement do to alter this perception? Law enforcement agencies in the US undoubtedly are more proactive than many of their counterparts in other jurisdictions about highlighting the use of informants in solving crimes. There is not a day goes past that there are not numerous press reports of confidential informants helping to bring perpetrators to justice. So why do the public concerns remain? Perhaps many take a somewhat simplistic view - you can’t trust the police! Policing of a community is done through consent. The police are an arm of government and have a right to take away our liberty and our lives. We worry about the powers they have. We fear for what they will do and for our safety. We worry when they are secretive. Combine this with inherent senses of right and wrong and of justice and there remains a distinctly uncomfortable feeling about the use of informants.

And then law enforcement really puts the fox in the chicken house with prominent cases like the tragic deaths of Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta and Rachel Hoffman in Tallahassee and the average citizen starts to become really concerned. It is perhaps worth of note here that if we were to stick rigidly to the definition of snitching on this blog namely "Snitching" when police or prosecutors offer lenience to criminal suspects in exchange for information or cooperation" then, arguably the Kathryn Johnson case would fall outside the remit of the definition because the main problem was not directly related to the informant!

So why do law enforcement seem to hell-bent on doing things wrong? The answer is they are not. The vast majority of law enforcement officers are good people doing an extremely difficult job. They are prepared to put their life on the line so you and I can sleep safely in our beds, get up and go safely to our work and come home and enjoy time with our families. The rub here is that they are 'people' with all the attributes that you and I have. When you criticise a law enforcement officer over some informant case regardless of how tragic a case it is they will in all likelihood perceive it as an attack on law enforcement in general and they will adopt a defensive position. They will rationalise what has happened, become dismissive of many of the concerns and antagonistic to those raising the issues. In discussions with many law enforcement officers these and many other cases, there are a raft of different interpretations of the events with some being deeply critical of the officers or agencies involved to those defending those involved. All the points raised have validity. These law enforcement officers, from patrol officers to Chiefs have all expressed the desire to manage informants in a professional manner. So where is it going wrong?

While there are many possible explanations the first thing to acknowledge is that many law enforcement agencies try to manage confidential informants in a professional way. However, it is a high risk area of policing and a many of those directly involved people including legislatures, lawyers, chiefs of police, detectives and patrol officers fail to understand how difficult an aspect of policing this is. For too long it has been seen as part and parcel of the policing role and one that needs no training and little supervision, no legislation and little policy, minimal record keeping and little accountability. When things go wrong there is always an individual officer or individual agency to blame. There is a failure to recognise the extent of the problem and to analyse it and to identify the causes. The reality is that while many other aspects of US policing have significantly improved, the way in which informants are managed has seen little change over the years. And in a society where public expectations of behaviour and accountability have changed the situation becomes less and less acceptable as time progresses.

US law enforcement is not alone in having to deal with such concerns. Many other countries have already had to evaluate the way in which informants are managed and make significant changes. There have been public enquiries in Australia, Canada and Ireland all of which have identified serious shortcomings. In the United Kingdom, over the past twenty years, law enforcement has been subjected to a number of high profile enquiries and court cases where methods used for informant management have led to significant changes including the publication of national policy for all police forces, mandatory training and structures for all officers involved in managing informants, rights based legislation in the form of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (introduced in 2000) and further legislation to deal with witness testimony coming from convicted persons in 2005. While these changes caused difficulties for law enforcement in their implementation their legacy has been a significant rise police standards and of accountability. These changes have worked in tandem with other well accepted policing concepts including Community Orientated Policing and Intelligence Led Policing.

At this juncture it is perhaps worth it for all to pause and consider where we may be. Just as post 9/11 the way in which intelligence was collected and managed was subjected to a huge amount of scrutiny, and the subsequent changes that were required, then now is perhaps an appropriate time for all with a genuine interest in this debate on informant management to take an objective look at how informants are managed within US law enforcement and how that process could be improved. The first step is recognising there is a problem. Kathryn Johnston, Rachel Hoffman, allegations of corruption in places like Philadelphia and Tulsa and the concerns over the use of confidential informants in Mosques in California are not isolated cases. They are symptoms off a much wider national malaise. US law enforcement needs to use informants but there needs to be changes in how they do it. This is not problem that can be resolved by single law enforcement agencies. It is a national problem that needs addressed at a national level and not just by law enforcement.

In upcoming blogs we will examine specific causes of some of the issues, we will look at what has been done and what is being done and most importantly the realistic and easily achievable steps that can be taken to improve the situation.