• 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)

Recent Blog Posts

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bad language

In previous blogs I have highlighted some of the perceptions that exist around law enforcement officers and their involvement in managing informants and I have made suggestions that the underlying system that has evolved contributes to many of the problems that arise. Law enforcement officers will always be in the frontline of protecting society. It is therefore incumbent upon society to set out the standards of behaviour that are expected and to provide law enforcement with the tools to do the job correctly. There seems little point in criticising a law enforcement officer for making errors with regard to behaviour when the legislators and politicians have failed to provide clarity. It is futile to criticise prosecutors for using legislation that has been put in place because citizens have asked politicians to put such legislation in place. It is somewhat hypocritical of the public to demand greater accountability of law enforcement and then not provide funding to purchase software that would help ensure greater accountability. And, if there is to be any resolution of such matters there needs to be open, frank and objective discussion about what is going wrong, why it is going wrong and what can be done to change it. My first suggestion and a subject which I have mentioned in previous blogs is that of clarity around terminology and it is to that which I return now. This is about getting the basics correct.

I have previously highlighted those individuals who are recruited and managed by law enforcement with the intention of providing evidence in legal proceedings. These should not be referred to as informants but as witnesses. I would suggest that the individuals to which the term informant could be applied fall into one of two categories. The first category is that of registered informant. (NYPD have a effective and comprehensive definition) This person will most often be someone involved in crime or from a high crime area who gives law enforcement information about ongoing criminality on a regular basis over an identified period of time. They may, or may not, take part in criminal acts on behalf of the law enforcement agency. The key point about these individuals is that they are registered with the law enforcement agency and there is a record to evidential standards of every action they do on behalf of the agency, every intelligence report they produce, every cent they have been paid and that their behaviour is authorised by a supervisor within the agency following comprehensive risk assessment. Such a process protects the informant, the law enforcement officer and the general public.

The second category of those to be considered as informants are those citizens who give information to law enforcement in the expectation that no one will know they have given such information. This information is likely to be given on a one off or ad-hoc basis. Information coming from such people is likely to include reports of suspicious activity and crime-stoppers type tips. The agency needs to keep a record of who supplies what information. Again such a record protects the person giving the information, the officer receiving the information and the general public. Such a system addresses many of the concerns raised in the stop snitching debate and is particularly well suited to community orientated policing. If the person is not a registered informant or a witness then by default they fall into this category.

While my suggestions here may appear somewhat simplistic they work. Obviously there needs to be significant guidance put in place for each category and a number of subcategories are likely to be required. However, building systems around such basic tenets ensures that appropriate resources can be directed to manage the relevant risks that surround this type of work. Obviously, there is likely to be less risk when a pastor is giving information about drug dealing in her community as opposed to someone who is involved in an organised crime group giving similar information. Hence, different risk control measures should be applied. Furthermore, if a witness is receiving significant benefit for their testimony as opposed to an ordinary witness, then it is in the interests of justice that the jury are aware of those benefits. This not does not mean the witness should be stigmatised with the label of informant, as such an action is prejudicial to the prosecution and does not serve justice.

A significant failing in any process is the corruption or misunderstanding of language. As Senator S I Hayakawa said: If we allow certain key words in our vocabulary to remain undefined, we tend to project an illusion of meaning that ultimately hinders and misdirects our thinking.

As I have stated before I welcome any comments or criticisms. I realise it is a blog but would suggest that you read all the blogs I have written to contextualise my comments. My comments are based on a significant amount of research an my function here is to add to the debate and try to suggest some solutions. In my next and final blog I will provide some other suggestions that may help address the concerns of the many different parties involved in this debate. But for now I will finish with another comment from Senator Hayakawa which I feel applies to all those law abiding individuals who have a right to a viewpoint in this debate be you a law enforcement officer, academic, politician, lawyer or civil rights activist (a role incidentally, that I firmly believe every law enforcement officer fulfils), and it is this:
You guys are saying the same thing. The only reason you are arguing is because you are using different words.