• 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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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bump Bump Bump

The term 'selective abstraction' is used in psychology to describe a flawed or prejudicial way of thinking. What occurs in this type of cognitive bias is that a person takes detail out of context and believes that while everything else in context is ignored. In lay terms it is what is 'cherry-picking'. In essence it is not reading the whole story but then basing an argument on the bits you have selected. It is about pointing out everything that is wrong in the way informants are managed and refusing to see the huge amount of good that is done through their use. It is about turning a blind eye to informants that have been mismanaged, pretending these were isolated incidents, then refusing to learn from them. It is a very human failing. We don't want to see what is wrong on our side. We don't want to or can't see another perspective because maybe if we do it means acknowledging we have not been doing things as well as we could have.

When it comes to managing informants everywhere, including the US, there are problems but there is also a significant amount of good work being done and this needs to be recognised. Citizens need to realise how valuable a resource that informants are both in regard to our safety and to the criminal justice system. If a terrorist is intent in bombing our cities then let us hope that somewhere a police officer has an informant stuck in the middle of that plot. If someone is dealing drugs outside the high school where our children attend, then let us hope that a police officer has heard about it from an informant. If one of our children has become mixed up in gang violence then let us hope that a police officer hears about that before we end up burying that child. Every law abiding citizen should be encouraging others to give information about crime to law enforcement.

But all involved in the criminal justice system need to recognise that there are problems with the way in which informants are managed at present. This is not just about protecting the rights of citizens it is also about officer safety. While there are many progressive law enforcement agencies that are attempting to raise standards there is not a collective approach and as such those improvements are likely to have limited success. Is significant change possible? I believe it is and I have seen evidence of it within a number of forward thinking US law enforcement agencies. These include the major police department that has undertaken the training of every officer in relation to the risks involved in informant management, a police department involved proactively recruiting informants to address specific threats, agencies that are writing new and better policies and the sheriff's department that has altered business processes and implemented a comprehensive software solution to provide full accountability in all informant cases - officers with objectivity and vision.

And for the rest, in simple terms, this is what I would suggest. A national working group should be set up including representation from federal, state, municipal and tribal law enforcement with the mandate of identifying new national definitions for all aspects of informant management and to produce binding standards of behaviour for informant management. The guidance produced should set the standard for every law enforcement agency. If legislative change is required then it should be done ensuring adequate protection for all involved including informants. All officers involved in the regular use of informants, including supervisors, should undergo mandatory training to a level that meets the amount of risk involved. (And this is not an afternoon in the classroom!). Each agency should be made to keep comprehensive records of all activities informants relating to informants. Such records should be kept to evidentiary standards and on use software designed for the function. Such records modify undesirable behaviours and provide the accountability that the public want. Academics have a role to play to in researching and developing methodology that can assist law enforcement and the criminal justice process as a whole. Legislators must provide good legislation and if the public want greater accountability then they have to be prepared to pay for the changes necessary. All the changes I suggest can be done and relatively easily if the desire is there. The professionals in this key area need to avoid the select abstraction that comes from their own camp and look at these matters in a broader and more objective manner. There are in essence only two sides, those who want to destroy society and the rest. It is time the rest maybe tried a bit harder to see each other’s perspective.

And that is about it for me. Thank you taking the time to read (hopefully all) I have written. You may disagree with some or all of it, however, in the words of the philosopher Samuel Johnson: ‘I have found you an argument but I am not obliged to find you understanding.’ Hopefully you are at least thinking it through. I believe that the management of informants is an essential part of law enforcement. It saves lives, prevents crime and brings many perpetrators to justice. But perhaps there is a better way to manage informants. As A A Milne wrote in The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh: 'Hear is Edward Bear coming downstairs, bump, bump bump, on the back of his head behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he thinks that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a minute to think of it.'
John welcomes comments and can be contacted through his website