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Solving the Confidential Informant Dilemma

Written by Stephen G. Serrao

Sometime in your police career, you will work with a confidential informant. Whether you’re trying to crack a difficult case, gain key evidence in a conspiracy investigation, or learn about criminal activity before it happens, you will usually need to cultivate relationships with criminal confidential informants.

Unfortunately, most informants are pretty nefarious characters, and trying to pry loose details about criminal activity can become a game of cat and mouse. This old adage certainly applies here: “How do you know when your informant is lying?” “When his lips are moving.”

While some confidential informants are law-abiding citizens, often the informants with the best information are hardened criminals. Entering into and maintaining relationships with these people entails quite a bit of risk for officers and agencies. While these informants are feeding your agency great intelligence, they are usually out on the streets engaging in criminal activity and, in some cases, committing murders.

They may also be involved in “playing” the system, wherein they register as informants with multiple agencies for a bigger “payday” or as a form of “insurance,” allowing them to receive overlapping cash payments and promises of reduced prosecution from multiple agencies.

Law enforcement officers and agencies must wade through this confusing morass of payments, promises, information gathering, information vetting, protecting informant identities—all while trying to stay this side of the gray line of legality. Unfortunately, most agencies lack sophisticated systems for managing confidential informants, and they rely on rudimentary spreadsheets and notes on scraps of paper locked away in file cabinets.

Yes, unbelievably in the 21st century, many agencies still manage the process as law enforcement did almost 100 years ago in the Al Capone era. Yet officers are not using this archaic way of managing informants because technology doesn’t exist to modernize the process. It is because they are trying to protect their informants’ identities from being divulged.

Most believe this is relatively easy to control using paperbased systems. The fear seems to be that if informant data is entered into a modern computerized database, it will be exposed, which might result in a compromise of the source and could prove potentially deadly to the informant.

However, the “scraps of paper” approach isn’t the best security model; it doesn’t facilitate connecting the dots on larger criminal investigations, and it has and will continue to subject the agency to significant risk. The news archives are littered with examples of informant management gone awry due to inappropriate engagement with informants—cops going to jail, careers ruined, agencies being sued, millions of dollars paid for settlements as a result of acts committed by the informant while under the control of the agency, etc.

At the root of the problem is a complex process with very few instructions. Few national standards exist for dealing with informants, and policies vary by agency from state to state, sometimes based on attorney generals’ guidelines or even consent decrees rising from legal issues in the past. Beyond those few written rules, officers placed in these complex situations tend to handle each case based on instinct.

What’s missing is an end-to-end informant management approach that guides agencies, reduces risk, protects informant identities, and helps facilitate search capability so intelligence can be analyzed and used as a better crime-fighting tool. A computer-based informant management system can help address almost all of these needs.

Well-designed systems can protect informant identities by assigning code names or numbers, and they can give the control officer or handler flexibility to keep the information “for his eyes only.” Well-designed systems send the handler a message if someone searches for the name or other details of a covert confidential informant. This way, the handler can learn if others are investigating his informant and can decide if he wants to call that colleague and offer details—or not.

Analyzing and sharing informant data across current and future cases is a major reason why agencies are moving to technology solutions for informant management. Additionally, the capability to geo-code informants allows a quick analysis of who you can talk to about specific criminal activity in a specific location (i.e., MS-13 gang activity in the 12th Pct.).

A future investigation might yield a name as a clue, and the ability to search against old informant contacts might result in a match. Those kinds of breakthroughs just aren’t possible with informant management on paper or in spreadsheets. With a modern computerized system, you can also take informant contact information and very easily elevate it to an intelligence report or product.

Among the biggest benefits of a technology solution for informant management is reduced risk and reduced liability. The risk is real. Just ask a city manager who has written a big check to settle an informant misconduct lawsuit. Using a computerized system helps officers and handlers follow a process and can document payments, capture contact history, document consideration given, and allow proper oversight. This kind of workflow and process helps officers more consistently know what is permissible, and supervisors can coach handlers to improve results within legal limits.

For those within the agency who want to conduct return on investment analysis of an informant, it is easy to review the data to compare payments and give consideration to the information that has been provided. Decisions can then be made about whether some informants are too expensive for the details they are providing, or vice versa. Technology solutions also allow de-confliction to make sure some informants aren’t registered with another handler, trying to double-dip or play both sides against the middle.

There is a lot of value for agencies in this comprehensive approach to managing the “lifecycle” of informants. Beyond the crime fighting value, this approach will help keep agencies out of trouble.

By utilizing technology, you can reduce risk, help great police officers make great decisions, and keep the agency looking good in the public eye. Those are some pretty compelling reasons to upgrade to a new approach to informant management.

A former New Jersey State Police Counterterrorism Bureau chief, Captain Stephen G. Serrao now helps shape the direction of intelligence management software as director of Product Management, Americas Region for Memex, Inc., a worldwide provider of intelligence management, data integration, search and analysis solutions. Serrao can be reached at steve.serrao@memex.com.

Photos by Mark C. Ide.

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2010

Rating : 3.5


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