April 01, 2014

Secret police bonuses for informants

Prosecutors in Durham, North Carolina, say they were unaware of a ten-year program under which police paid informants extra money to testify in drug cases. Story here: Durham Police bonus payments to informants could violate defendants' rights. Since prosecutors are responsible for providing discovery to defendants, these payments were not disclosed as required.

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September 24, 2013

Lowell, Mass. police sued for informant misuse

The city of Lowell, MA, is being sued, along with Officer Thomas Lafferty, for permitting the longterm misuse of informants who allegedly planted drugs on innocent people. Stories from the Boston Globe and the Lowell Sun here, here and here. Lowell has been under scrutiny for its informant policies: earlier this year a prosecutorial review cleared Officer Lafferty of wrongdoing in connection with his informant practices.

Plaintiffs harmed by informants often have a difficult time holding government actors and agencies responsible in court, since it can be hard to show that the government authorized the informants' bad behavior. For a prominent counter-example, see Estate of Davis v. U.S., 340 F.Supp.2d 79 (D. Mass. 2004) (describing a variety of legal theories under which the FBI might be held liable for murders committed by their informants Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi). With growing scrutiny of and information about the government-informant relationship, the law in this regard may be due for a change.

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May 08, 2013

San Francisco police use violent career criminal as informant

The San Francisco Weekly and the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute just released this indepth story about the SFPD's use of a high-level gang leader as an informant over several years: Cover of Darkness: S.F. Police turned a blind eye to some of the city's most dangerous criminals--who were also some of their most trusted soures. The story documents the clash between the S.F. police who protected their violent source in violation of their own policies, and the federal agents who ultimately arrested him. The debacle elicited scathing criticism from former law enforcement. From the story:

[Thirty-year law enforcement veteran Chuck] Drago and [former police commissioner Peter] Keane both believe that the existence of rogue informants for SFPD's specialized Gang Task Force and Narcotics Bureau indicates serious flaws in the department's internal checks and balances. (The SFPD's Narcotics Bureau, Gang Task Force, and Media Relations Office wouldn't comment on the department's handling of violent informants for this story.) "Somebody is dropping the ball in management," says Drago. "SFPD have let loose an unguided missile on the public" by allowing dangerous men like Sandoval (and, as we'll see, at least one other) to stay at large in spite of their offenses, says Keane. "No modern police force with any professionalism engages in that sort of practice anymore."

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November 02, 2012

Snitch team in Florida generates millions in forfeitures and DOJ investigation

The Bal Habour police department is under federal investigation for its use of a team of informants to collect millions of dollars in forfeitures, often without making any arrests. The Miami Herald ran this story, Feds probe Bal Harbour Police Department over seized millions, describing how this small police department uses "a team of snitches and undercover cops" to "seize a fortune in cash every year" from all over the country. "Now, the special unit is under federal investigation for its handling of millions in seized dollars, including hundreds of thousands paid to snitches, questionable expenses and missing financial records." Over four years, Bal Harbour police spent thousands of forfeiture dollars on equipment, cars, boats, first class plane tickets, and a banquet. The department paid its informants $624,558.

Such programs are made possible by federal forfeiture law, under which police departments can keep a percentage of seized assets. Because the legal standards for forfeiture are lower than for a criminal case, police can seize money and assets without having to prove anyone guilty. For a great overview of forfeiture law and its reliance on informants, see Radley Balko's article in Reason Magazine, The Forfeiture Racket. See also this report from the Institute for Justice: Policing for Profit.

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October 17, 2012

Texas police pressure traffic violator into drug work

ABC News ran this story about a mother who was pulled over for traffic violations and then pressured into becoming a drug informant to avoid arrest. Story here: Cops Use Traffic Tix to Force Woman into Drug Buys, Lawyer Claims. This is the same scenario reported in Attica, New York, where another young woman was pressured into becoming a drug informant when she was stopped for failing to pay traffic tickets. See this post: Recruiting new informants. Such stories remind us that police have discretion to use any opportunity--even a speeding ticket--to recruit new informants, even when the offense is minor or has nothing to do with the crimes the police want to investigate.

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September 19, 2012

FP: Does the FBI Have an Informant Problem?

Foreign Policy just published this article on the troubling use of informants in domestic counter-terrorism: Does the FBI Have an Informant Problem? The piece analyzes the large challenges of using unregulated criminal informants to do law enforcement work, and discusses a series of recent examples. From the article:

Professional informants are paid by law enforcement to infiltrate criminal or extremist circles, sometimes on a full-time basis. Yet they're not considered employees of the government and are not subject to the same rules. From warrantless searches to sex with targets to constructing terrorist plots out of thin air, the informant problem is not new, but this powerful investigative tool is under pressure like never before after being exposed to the harsh light of day in a series of recent terrorism trials. Growing media scrutiny and a pending civil lawsuit in California are aggressively challenging whether the benefits of aggressive informant tactics outweigh the risk to civil liberties and are raising troubling questions about the legitimacy of terrorism investigations.

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September 07, 2012

More on young informants

The New Yorker article is generating new awareness and a lot of great discussion about young informants and the use of criminal informants more generally. TalkLeft discusses the overall challenges of informant use here: Informants as Pawns in the War on Drugs. NPR's Talk of the Nation did a special segment on the topic here: Use of Confidential Informants Mostly Unregulated.

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August 29, 2012

New Yorker story on young informants

The New Yorker has just published an important story on the use of young vulnerable informants. It discusses numerous cases in which young people have lost their lives trying to work off their own offenses, and reveals how common the practice is and how little protection the law and police typically provide. Synopsis here: The Throwaways: Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.

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June 29, 2012

NYT Magazine on the complexity of snitching

Some of you may remember Alex White, the Atlanta informant who revealed the police corruption that killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. This Sunday's NYT Magazine details the often unbelievable twists and turns of that saga, from Johnston's shooting to White's career as a snitch for multiple local and federal agencies, to the Congressional hearing and prosecutions that ensured. A great window into the police/informant world: A Snitch's Dilemma.

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May 14, 2012

Law review article on Rachel's Law

The Boston College Journal of Law & Social Justice has published this note, Toward Efficiency and Equity in Law Enforcement: "Rachel's Law" and the Protection of Drug Informants. It focuses on an important provision in Rachel's Law that was eliminated, that would have required police to provide potential informants with counsel. Here's the abstract:

Following the murder of Rachel Morningstar Hoffman--a 23-year old college graduate--Florida passed "Rachel’s Law," which established new guidelines for the police when dealing with confidential informants. Immediately prior to its enactment, lawmakers stripped Rachel's Law of key provisions. These provisions required police to provide a potential informant with an attorney before agreeing to any deal. Opponents of these provisions argue that they hamstring law enforcement agencies in their efforts to prosecute drug crimes. Rather than serving as an obstacle to effective law enforcement, the attorney provision in the original version of Rachel's Law enables efficient prosecution of crimes and protects minor drug offenders who may be unsuited for potentially dangerous undercover informant work. This Note recommends that the attorney provision be restored to Rachel's Law, and encourages other states to enact similar statutes.

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Impact of 'Rachel's Law' on informant use

The Tallahassee Democrat has published this article about the effects of Rachel's Law on informant use in Florida, four years after the death of Rachel Hoffman: Four years later, Hoffman's death still impacts CI use. The article concludes that the Tallahassee police department made some significant changes.

For six months immediately following Hoffman's death, the department suspended the use of all CIs. For a long time, no one wanted to work narcotics cases, which often rely on informants, the chief said.

"We had to be confident in our investigators that they were ready," [Chief] Jones said.

An audit of department confidential-informant files conducted about six months after Hoffman was killed found lax record keeping and noted areas of improvement. Personnel were moved, the vice unit was made a part the Criminal Investigations Division of a new Special Investigation Section and supervision was stepped up.

Today, TPD's rules governing the handling of confidential informants mirror that of Rachel's Law, which was spearheaded by Hoffman's parents and provides some safeguards for vulnerable informants.

"I think we've got a very good policy now," Jones said. "We have elevated ourselves and are back in the lead and set the tone for the state."


Tallahassee is reminiscent of Los Angeles in the 1990s. After a massive grand jury investigation concluded that the jail was rampant with unreliable informants and that police and prosecutors were relying on them, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office instituted significant changes. Today, it has some of the most rigorous regulations for the tracking and use of jailhouse informants in the country: Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office Legal Policies Manual.

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January 27, 2012

Tallahassee agrees to pay $2.6 million in informant Rachel Hoffman's death

The city of Tallahassee, FL, has agreed to settle the case over informant Rachel Hoffman's death for $2.6 million. Story here. Tallahassee police had sent Hoffman, a young inexperienced informant, on a sting operation to buy guns and drugs, during which she was killed. After Hoffman's death, the Florida legislature passed "Rachel's Law" which requires Florida police to create guidelines for the creation and use of informants. See this previous post: Florida's Rachel's Law offers some protection to informants. The Hoffman settlement is an important milestone because it acknowledges that governments may be responsible for the dangers that informants often face when trying to satisfy police or prosecutorial demands for information and cooperation. Recently, several other families have brought similar suits for the death of young informants. See here , here, and here.

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January 11, 2012

Detroit teen killed after becoming an informant

Shelley Hilliard, a 19-year-old transgendered woman, agreed with police to set up a $335 drug deal in order to avoid being arrested for marijuana possession. Three days later she was killed, allegedly by the man she set up. Detroit News story here: Teen found dead three days after helping police. This story illustrates how informant culture encourages dangerous decisions that are wildly disproportionate to the crimes involved. This young woman took a great risk to avoid the petty offense of marijuana possession, and police turned her into an informant, with all its attendant risks, in pursuit of another petty drug deal worth less than $400. Such important decisions--by individuals or police--should not be made so cavalierly. For example, Florida's "Rachel's Law" requires police to establish guidelines to determine when it is appropriate, or too dangerous, to turn a suspect into an informant. Rachel's Law was passed in response to the death of Rachel Hoffman, another young informant who was killed while setting up a drug deal. See this previous post: Florida's Rachel's Law provides some protection to informants, and the Families & Youth section on the main website for related stories.

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September 16, 2011

New York officers sued for failing to protect informant

The mother of a 20-year-old informant is suing two NYPD officers for failing to protect her son who was killed an hour and a half after he tipped off his handler to the location of some guns and drugs. Story here: Mom of slain informant Anthony Velez sues cops for failing to protect him. Such suits are rarely successful--courts have been reluctant to hold police accountable for the fate of their informants, even when the government contributes to the risk. See this post discussing the government's responsibility for the safety of its informants.

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June 16, 2011

Omaha murder trial sheds light on FBI criminal informants

One informant, Jorge Palacios, was a gang member suspected in a Los Angeles murder, and accused, although never charged, in the rape of a 13-year-old girl. The FBI paid him more than $300,000 over five years to help with drug investigations. The other informant, Cesar Sanchez, was caught dealing drugs. In exchange for allowing his auto shop to be used as the site of drug deals for the FBI to monitor, he earned between $50,000 and $100,000 and avoided deportation. This glimpse of the kinds of deals that the government strikes with criminal informants was on display in Omaha last week in the murder trial of Robert Nave, accused of killing Sanchez. The story, FBI tells of informant shooting, also reveals how law enforcement can be reluctant to probe the criminal behavior of their informants:

FBI agent Greg Beninato, who was Palacios' handler in Omaha, testified that the FBI knew that Palacios was the suspected driver and accomplice in the 2004 drive-by shooting of a rival gang member in Los Angeles, a charge for which he was recently arrested. Beninato also acknowledged that agents had heard accusations that Palacios may have been involved in the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, though no charges were brought. At one point, Riley [the defense attorney] asked Beninato whether he questioned Palacios about the two cases in order to decide whether to continue using him as an informant. "No," Beninato said.

"Why not?" Riley asked.

"It's a fine line between getting involved in someone else's investigation," Beninato said. "I wasn't going to question him without the (investigating agencies') permission or their request to do so."

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June 15, 2011

St. Petersburg police to review informant policies after officer scandal

Police have nearly unfettered discretion when creating and handling informants. That authority is coming under scrutiny in St. Petersburg, Florida, after the FBI arrested Detective Anthony Foster for extorting thousands of dollars in cash and goods from his informant. Story here: St. Petersburg police to re-evaluate policy on confidential informants:

The FBI's criminal complaint against Foster depicts a detective with near unlimited discretion in his dealings with an informant. Foster texted and called the informer to demand payments in cash or gifts, such as a widescreen TV, Nike shoes and groceries. The FBI alleges Foster made clear in recorded conversations that, in exchange, he would get a reduced sentence for the informant, who had been arrested on a grand theft charge in Hernando County. . . .

The criminal complaint against Foster suggests that there are either few regulations in place or that they aren't always followed. For example, in Foster's effort to convince the assistant state attorney that the informant had helped him solve some cases, Foster had his sergeant call to corroborate his informant's value. The supervisor, according to the complaint, told the assistant state attorney that the informer helped in major homicide cases and was "more of a benefit out of jail rather than in jail." Later, the sergeant faxed a list of four major investigations -- including a March 23 murder -- in which the informer assisted. When the FBI showed the informer the list, however, the informer denied assisting in any of those cases.

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March 09, 2011

San Francisco to review snitch policy

The San Francisco police department has announced that it is reviewing its use of criminal informants and will provide additional training to officers. The decision comes in the wake of allegations of misconduct against several officers. From the SF Examiner story:

Last Thursday, the day after allegations of illegal searches and seizures against six officers were made public and as gang tensions mounted in the Mission district, police station captains received a message on their department BlackBerrys to stop using confidential sources -- known on the street as snitches -- until further notice.

The directive came from the head of investigations, Cmdr. David Lazar, and was rescinded within an hour, according to interim police Chief Jeff Godown.

"It was an error," he said. Lazar also acknowledged the mistake, calling it a "premature blast out."
But before the order could be reversed, complaints rained down from captains. Capt. Greg Corrales was trying to stop retaliatory gang warfare in the Mission when the order came in. It would have made police work nearly impossible, Corrales said. The department announced that it will review its use of confidential informants this week and officers will receive additional training. . . . "Confidential informants are done on a daily basis and there are administrative issues," Godown said. "We started looking into this months ago."


Informant policies are often intimately associated with police misconduct, in part because informant use is secretive and easily subject to abuse. In the Los Angeles Rampart scandal, for example, police used informants to plant evidence and cover up police shootings. Part of the post-Rampart reform involved curtailing informant use by street officers. See Los Angeles Times story here: LAPD Eases Rules on Street Sources.

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October 19, 2010

"America's most successful stop snitchin' campaign"

Another excellent piece from journalist Radley Balko at Reason.com-- American's Most Successful Stop Snitchin' Campaign. This piece elaborates on the subject of Eric Miller's last post, chronicling the retaliation and punishment openly inflicted on police officers who have broken the code of silence and reported official wrongdoing in cities such as Kansas City, New York, and Albuquerque. From the article:

In his book Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper explains the implicit threats that make the Blue Wall so successful:

"You have to rely on your fellow officers to back you. A cop with a reputation as a snitch is one vulnerable police officer, likely to find his peers slow to respond to requests for backup-if they show up at all. A snitch is subject to social snubbing. Or malicious mischief, or sabotage...The peer pressure is childish and churlish, but it's real. Few cops can stand up to it."

Which makes it all the more important that police administrators and political leaders support and protect the cops who do. The most disturbing aspect of these stories is not that there are bad cops in Kansas City, New York, and Albuquerque. It's not even that other cops covered for them, or that police unions have institutionalized the protection of bad cops. The most disturbing part of these cases is that the cover-up and retaliation extend all the way to the top of the chain of command--and that so far there has been no action, or even condemnation, from the elected officials who are supposed to hold police leaders accountable.

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July 16, 2010

"It's a matter of trust": Philly Inquirer editorial on citizen cooperation

From today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

It's no wonder that residents of some crime-infested Philadelphia neighborhoods are afraid to "snitch." How can they expect protection from police who are in bed with drug dealers? All the assurance in the world that three officers, indicted for scheming to steal a drug dealer's heroin and sell it, aren't representative of most Philadelphia cops leaves open the question of whether there are others like them. . . . A necessary ingredient in effectively fighting crime is the trust of the community officers are trying to protect. You can't have that when people believe cops are just crooks, too.

Rest of editorial here.

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May 10, 2010

Primetime: U.S. customs authorizes informant to import cocaine

Another large-scale informant crime spree, this one courtesy of a Grits comment. In this story, ABC News Primetime documented how U.S. Customs authorized its informant, Rodney Matthews, to import tons of cocaine into the U.S., much of which ended up on the streets. Here's the link to the Primetime transcript. Caught with a few hundred pounds of marijuana, Matthews became a Customs informant and starting importing cocaine with the government's blessing. While all the Customs officials interviewed acknowledged that such deals are routine, they disputed whether the drugs were permitted by the government to hit the streets: Agent Tom Grieve said it wasn't authorized, while Mark Conrad of Customs internal affairs concluded that Grieve was lying to cover up the debacle. From the transcript:

FORREST SAWYER (Primetime) Was there anything said, anything that could have been in your wildest imagination misinterpreted to mean that Rodney Matthews could bring in a load and let it hit the streets?

AGENT TOM GRIEVE No. Not hit the streets. No, no, no, no. No. See, that's-no, n o.

FORREST SAWYER Tom Grieve says that there was no carte blanche, nothing like carte blanche.

MARK CONRAD, US CUSTOMS INTERNAL AFFAIRS Tom Grieve is simply a liar.

FORREST SAWYER ( VO ) Mark Conrad runs internal affairs for Customs in Houston. A 27-year veteran, Conrad spoke to PrimeTime in New York over the objections of the Customs Service.

MARK CONRAD We got in bed with Rodney Matthews and the importation of a humongous amount of narcotics coming into the United States.

FORREST SAWYER And the reason wasn't because they were dirty?

MARK CONRAD No. The reason is there's a great deal of pressure on agents in the field to make cases, to make the big one. And the bigger, the better.

FORREST SAWYER ( VO ) In fact, more than a dozen agents and former drug enforcement officials told us that letting dope hit the streets is the cost of doing business, that while the Matthews case is extreme, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

Matthews' former partner Jimmy Ellard got an even more dramatic deal. He had fled to Colombia and became a top transporter for drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. When he was caught in Florida, Ellard pled guilty to importing $6 billion [sic] worth of drugs into the U.S., and orchestrating a fatal airplane bombing. Ellard earned leniency by accusing several Customs officials of corruption. The officials were exonerated; Ellard served only six years in prison.

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April 19, 2010

Jury finds police violated victim's rights by using false "snitch" label

Last week, a federal jury decided that two Los Angeles police officers violated a young woman's constitutional rights by falsely labeling her a snitch--a label that led to her death--and then failing to protect her. L.A. Times stories here and here. In an effort to get gang member Jose Ledesma to confess to a murder, police told him that Puebla had identified him as the shooter, even forging her signature on a fake photo array, although Puebla never identified Ledesma. At the same time, the jury found that Puebla and her parents also contributed to her death, and awarded no money to the family.

This is an interesting case for a number of reasons. First, the government is rarely held accountable for its use of or failure to protect informants, so the jury's conclusion that the police violated Puebla's constitutional rights by using her in the ruse and then failing to protect her could support future cases. Here is a link to the complaint in the case: Puebla v. Los Angeles, Case No. 08-3128. For another example of the trend(?) towards greater protection for informants--particularly young vulnerable ones--see this post on Florida's new informant legislation. At the same time, the Los Angeles jury apparently believed that Puebla and her family significantly contributed to her danger--finding the family 80% responsible and the police only 20% at fault. While it is unclear from the Times article why the jury came to this conclusion, the public and the criminal system often blame informants for their own injuries or even death, on the theory that they take the risk by becoming informants in the first place. In this case, the government argued that Puebla was killed, not because of the police ruse, but because she testified months later at a hearing in which she said that Ledesma was gang-affiliated.

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March 12, 2010

The tangled web of informant and handler

While we may never know what actually happened between DEA Agent Lee Lucas and his informant Jerrell Bray--a hazardous partnership that rocked Cleveland for the last few years-- their story reveals the many dangers that arise when law enforcement hitches its wagon to criminal snitches. In 2007, the Cleveland Plain Dealer began extensive reporting on allegations that Bray, a convicted killer and drug dealer, was using his relationship to the DEA to frame rivals and innocent people and that Agent Lucas had lied to make cases. Eventually, over a dozen convictions were reversed, including those of people who pleaded guilty. Story here. Bray was convicted of perjury and is currently serving 14 years; Agent Lucas was prosecuted for perjury and obstruction of justice. Last month, a jury acquitted Agent Lucas of all 18 charges. Story here. Law enforcement agents are rarely prosecuted for relying on bad informants, so the Plain Dealer's coverage offers a rare glimpse into the ways that an informant can shape--or deform--official decisions.

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January 29, 2010

Police raids and imaginary informants

Dennis Fitzgerald is a former DEA agent and Miami police narcotics supervisor. He has written an article entitled "Wrong-Door Raids, Phantom Informants, and the Controlled Buy," in which he not only describes problems with drug informant use, but also some best practices that can counter them. For example, he points out that "the creation of 'phantom informants' is a practice that has plagued police departments for decades," and recommends that police agencies institute better documentation requirements to counter this problem. More generally, he discusses the problem of wrong-door raids and the police practices that generate them. From the article:

During the last 20 years, police have killed at least 40 innocent people while conducting wrong-door raids. According to a study by the Cato Institute, "Because of shoddy police work, over-reliance on informants, and other problems, each year hundreds of raids are conducted on the wrong addresses, bringing unnecessary terror and frightening confrontation to people never suspected of a crime."

Here's a link to the Cato Institute raid map. Fitzgerald goes on to identify the problems that lead to such raids, including:

1. Willful disregard for police standard operating procedures governing the use of informants and conducting controlled buys 2. Use of "cookie cutter" affidavits containing boilerplate language from a computer program 3. Blatant lies in search warrant affidavits 4. Creation of phantom informants 5. Supplying drug exhibits "purchased" by a phantom informant 6. Planting drugs in homes when no drugs are discovered during a search.

Fitzgerald is also the author of the book "Informants and Undercover Investigations: A Practical Guide to Law, Policy and Procedure" (CRC Press, 2007).

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November 10, 2009

Recruiting new informants

Here's a revealing article in the Buffalo News: Walking thin line in Village of Attica: Would-be informant says police coerced her into cooperation. It's about Bianca Hervey, a 20-year-old college student who got pulled over by police for failing to pay her traffic tickets. The police threatened to put her in jail for the night, unless she agreed to become a drug informant. Although Hervey did not use drugs or have any connections to the drug world, police told her it didn't matter--she could still work as a snitch and try to set people up. Frightened of going to jail, Hervey signed the informant agreement. When she told her father, attorney Richard Furlong, what had happened, however, he "went ballistic." Furlong went to the police and to the City of Attica and complained about the recruitment of young people into the world of drugs, but the police and the Village Board refused to change the policy.

This story illustrates how snitching has quietly become such an immense part of the criminal justice system. Many cities have policies like Attica's, in which police can recruit any potential offender as a drug informant--even a 20-year-old guilty of nothing more than a traffic violation. It was this same type of policy that led to the death of 23-year-old Rachel Hoffman in Tallahassee, Florida, and triggered Florida's ground breaking legislation on the subject of informant-creation. See post: Florida's "Rachel's Law" offers some protections for informants.

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October 12, 2009

"Snitch and you're a dead man"

Journalism professor and author John Fountain weighs in on the "stop snitching" phenomenon in the Chicago Tribune. He describes urban neighborhoods permeated with fear and insecurity, and takes issue with criticism of residents who are unwilling to talk to police. He writes:

In my experience growing up in an impoverished Chicago community like those under siege, it boils down to an issue of trust. And many who live in the city's most murderous neighborhoods -- who have also witnessed police and political corruption and a trail of broken promises -- simply don't trust the authorities enough to come forward. By doing so, they could be laying their lives on the line. It isn't that people don't want to tell. They do. And it isn't that they aren't concerned about their neighborhoods. They are. But to come forward is to risk everything, even in a world where "safety" is always relative.

Fountain's piece highlights a central reason that the public debate over criminal justice is so fractured: people and groups have radically different experiences and expectations. In neighborhoods where police are perceived as responsive, where people do not worry constantly about their personal security, where the legal system seems fair and effective, it makes eminent sense to talk to police. In neighborhoods where none of this is true, it might make sense not to. Such differences in perception show up quite publicly in debates over "stop snitching," but they quietly affect all aspects of the criminal process, from the way people relate to defense lawyers to the kinds of punishment people consider to be fair. In my view, this is one of the reasons that the "stop snitching" debate is valuable: it encourages the public exposure of some very different legal realities.

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October 01, 2009

Derrion Albert's death, "Stop Snitching," and people's reluctance to talk to police

Yesterday on CNN, Anderson Cooper reported on the terrible story of 16-year-old Derrion Albert who was beaten to death by four other teenagers in Chicago. The beating was captured on videotape--story here. Four people have been charged so far. Police Superintendant Jody Weis told Cooper that no one has come forward to identify three other potential perpetrators, even though numerous people witnessed the event. Weis stated, "We are literally getting killed by this code of silence, this no-snitching rule. We've worked hard to overcome it." Cooper responded as follows:

This is something we focused on a lot on this program over the years. I did a piece on 60 Minutes about it as well. This whole stop snitching effort, rappers are telling people don't be a snitch. And now the definition of a snitch is not just somebody who is involved in a crime and tries to rat out someone else they were involved with. Now there's this horrible definition of being a snitch is anybody who comes forward and talks about a crime they've seen. That's just the mentality that cannot be tolerated.

"Stop snitching" is an important phenomenon in urban criminal law enforcement; it is also deeper than comments like Cooper's suggest, which is why I devote an entire chapter of the book to it. In a nutshell, "stop snitching" is the legacy of three related trends: drug enforcement's heavy use of criminal snitches, increased gang violence against witnesses, and decades of mistrust between police and poor minority communities. While it is true that rappers often write songs that say "don't snitch," rap music should not be blamed for the fact that law-abiding residents of high-crime inner city neighborhoods are often too afraid of retaliation and/or too wary of police to report crimes. Here is an excerpt from the book:
The "stop snitching" phenomenon turns out to be complex, deep-seated, and long-standing. It did not begin with a DVD or a rap song, nor will it end when ["stop snitching"] t-shirts go out of style. It is simultaneously a criminal code of the street, a reflection of widespread communal distrust of police, as well as, more recently, a tool of intimidation against civilian witnesses. While the phenomenon was born in the penal system, it has spread beyond its criminal roots, a product of the multifaceted challenges of urban crime, gang violence, race, drugs, and policing through criminal informants.

To explain "stop snitching" is not to condone it--the world would be a better place if Chicago residents had the kind of relationship with police that would promote cooperation and information-sharing. But it is also important to give Chicagoans more credit--like so many people in cities such as Baltimore or Newark or Los Angeles, their reluctance to call police often stems from very real personal as well as historical experiences.

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August 19, 2009

Police Internally Split on Confidentiality Issue

Thanks to Scott Henson from Grits For Breakfast for passing along this important story on a battle raging within the St. Louis police department. Rank-and-file police are refusing to provide information about their snitches to their own police supervisors and city police officials. Here's an excerpt:

Worried about liars in their ranks, city police officials are demanding that up to 20 officers tell bosses details about their confidential informers. But the St. Louis Police Officers Association has won a temporary restraining order to block the inquiry, pending a hearing in court next week. The organization says the probe would jeopardize informers' lives, officers' careers and public safety. At issue is whether officers have attributed fabricated information to confidential informers to obtain search and arrest warrants. Police brass acknowledge in court filings that they believe "one or more" officers "have included false information in affidavits" for warrants, and say the investigation is aimed at stopping "the concerns of police abuse and violation of civil rights."

Ironically, one of the officers' arguments against holding a public hearing is that if informants are called to testify, they will lie. These being the very same informants that police rely on to get the warrants in the first place.

The fact that street cops are at odds with their own police officials on this question reveals some deep dynamics about snitching, including what I call the culture of secrecy surrounding the entire practice. Police and their informants are heavily dependent on one another--police need information while offenders need protection against punishment. Police will often go a long way to protect their sources, famously from defendants and courts, but often from prosecutors and even sometimes from their own police supervisors. This does not mean that police handlers are necessarily corrupt: handling criminal informants inherently means doing unsavory things like ignoring their crimes, bending the rules, sometimes providing addicts with cash for drugs. However, the culture of secrecy makes illegal police conduct that much easier. See this NYT story on Brooklyn police who supplied their informants with drugs. Kudos to the St. Louis police officials who are trying to make the process more accountable and transparent.

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