Speaking Truth to Power: Confidential Informants and Police Investigations

Speaking Truth to Power: Confidential Informants and Police Investigations

by Dean A. Dabney, Richard Tewksbury

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Domestic drug enforcement takes many forms, from the rural patrol officer who happens upon a small-scale mobile “shake and bake” methamphetamine lab during a routine traffic stop, to the city narcotics detective who initiates a low-level buy-bust operation that nets a few hits of crack cocaine on the street corner, to the local, state, and federal agents working in multiagency task forces that coordinate a sting operation that nets thousands of kilos of near-pure cocaine being transported by tractor-trailer. Regardless of the form, there is a high probability that these authorities have exploited access to known offenders and exerted pressure on those individuals to gather inside information on illicit drug sales. These confidential informants provide intelligence on the inner workings of drug operations in exchange for leniency or remuneration, providing a relatively cheap source of intelligence that fuels much of the ongoing war on drugs. In other instances, law enforcement authorities will reach out to members of the criminal underworld who are willing to provide valuable intelligence in exchange for money. Despite the central role of informants in contemporary police operations, little is known about the shadowy relationships among law enforcement, snitches, and offenders. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in the narcotics, homicide, and street-level vice operations in two major metropolitan police departments, Speaking Truth to Power takes readers to the front lines of the war on drugs to unravel this complex web of information exchange.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520290488
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 990,435
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Dean A. Dabney is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University.
Richard Tewksbury is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Louisville. 

Read an Excerpt

Speaking Truth to Power

Confidential Informants and Police Investigations

By Dean A. Dabney, Richard Tewksbury


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96462-4


Police and Confidential Informants

For the past forty years, the American criminal justice system has been at the forefront of a war on drugs. Law enforcement authorities have served as the front line in this battle, heading up a wide-ranging array of domestic interdiction operations. Budgetary data speak to the breadth and depth of this prolonged intervention. According to a recent Rand Corporation study, police have spent an estimated $600 billion on domestic interdiction operations since the early 1980s (Chalk 2011). In fiscal year 2015 alone, federal and state authorities budgeted nearly $10 billion for local, state, and federal drug enforcement operations; an additional $5 billion was requested to fund domestic and international interdiction efforts (Office of National Drug Control Policy 2015). Moreover, government and private funding entities allocate hundreds of millions of dollars for research, training, and technical assistance grants to agencies, universities, and nonprofit organizations.

Domestic drug enforcement takes many forms, from the rural patrol officer who happens on a small-scale mobile "shake-and-bake" methamphetamine lab during a routine traffic stop, to the city narcotics detective who initiates a low-level buy-bust operation that nets a few hits of crack cocaine on the street corner, to the local, state, and federal agents working in multiagency taskforces that coordinate large-scale sting operations that net thousands of kilo bricks of near-pure cocaine being transported by tractor-trailer. Regardless of the form, there is a high probability that the precursor or aftermath of each of these scenarios will involve law enforcement authorities exploiting access to known offenders and exerting pressure on them to gather inside information about active illicit drug markets. "Confidential informant" is the common label affixed to those individuals who provide intelligence on the inner workings of an illicit drug operation in exchange for leniency or remuneration. Given the heightened enforcement efforts and heavy legal penalties associated with drug crime, persons who sell drugs often find it in their best interests to conceal their activities from law enforcement agents and diversify operations so as to minimize their exposure to the threat of apprehension and escalating sanctions. Concomitantly, harsh formal responses have led to the development of a sophisticated and hierarchical structure to deal with the manufacture, transportation, and distribution of illicit drugs, with many players serving many different roles within a clandestine system that necessitates deliberate means of intelligence and infiltration. While police enlist the intelligence of confidential informants to advance their criminal investigation efforts into most every type of offending, it is within the context of narcotics enforcement that this practice most frequently comes to our attention.


The above-mentioned multilayered reality both pushes and pulls law enforcement authorities toward the use of confidential informants. The secretive, wide-ranging, and hierarchical nature of illicit criminal enterprises pushes law enforcement authorities to use confidential informants. In the case of the illegal drug market, all players — from street level dealers to cartel chieftains — methodically conceal their identities from law enforcement as a means of mitigating negative consequences. Narcotics investigators have come to rely on insiders, from witnesses to drug users to street hustlers, as a means of revealing the identities of the persons who manufacture, traffic, and distribute illegal drugs. Once the identities of drug dealers are known, police must discern the nature of the drug operation and catch the participants engaging in an illegal transaction. Here, again, police are pushed to rely on participants in the drug market (e.g., users, lower-level dealers, etc.) as a means of setting up and participating in the transaction under the watchful eye of fellow law enforcement authorities (Worrall 2001; Wisotsky 1986).

Not only are officers pushed toward the use of confidential informants due to the outsider status of police in criminal enterprises but they are also pulled toward it by the internal workings of modern police agencies and by their own self-interests. Today, police officers are routinely evaluated based on their success in disrupting criminal activity. Law enforcement agencies have grown increasingly accustomed to systematically counting arrests, showcasing significant disruptions of criminal enterprises via the media, and documenting changes in crime rates within their jurisdiction. This is especially true when it comes to drug crime, as the aforementioned massive budgetary commitments and high-profile nature of the problem ratchet up expectations to impact drug crime in a measurable and meaningful way. At the most mundane level, especially in the growing number of local police departments that have adopted a Compstat management system, the meticulous tracking of the number and location of calls for drug-related service and arrests has become an institutionalized practice. The officers account for their existence and present their work outputs in the form of weekly briefings, annual reports, and web platforms that afford near real-time access to crime statistics (Weisburd et al. 2004). This produces various forms of internal pressure within police agencies, which in turn leads to competition among officers and across units for the glory that goes along with changes in arrest numbers and high-profile drug busts (Dabney 2010). The use of confidential informants is a proven means through which to clear drug crimes. In fact, Roger Billingsley, Teresa Nemitz, and Philip Bean estimate that "about one third of all crimes cleared up by police involve the use of informers [broadly defined to include citizens who provide tips, paid informants, and apprehended criminals seeking to work off charges]" (2001, 5). Thinking more proactively, police agencies have come to appreciate that the threat of sanctions for drug crimes serves as a valuable tool to compel persons to provide actionable information on any unsolved crime. Investigators routinely pry information pertaining to open burglary, robbery, rape, or murder cases from offenders who are faced with the threat of heavy charges and sentences for drug offenses. It is on this basis that former director of the FBI William Webster is credited with stating: "The informant is the single most important tool in law enforcement" (cited in Bloom 2002, 158).

At a more bureaucratic level, Kraska (2001) observes that police agencies have grown increasingly specialized in their structures, instituting myriad specialty units dedicated to drug interdiction, violent crime, and any number of other proactive investigative entities. With the creation of these units comes a heightened expectation for results. Once again, unit competition for resources, accolades, and promotions prompts officers to increase their arrest numbers. Confidential informants have become a primary means through which to achieve this goal, and thus specialty units are pulled toward using them. Alexandra Natapoff observes that, "especially in the expansive arena of drug enforcement, turning suspects into so-called snitches has become a central feature of the way America manages crime" (2009, 2). Here, again, the pull of confidential informant usage is readily apparent.

At the officer level, be it the patrol officer who happens on a drug offense during routine 911-driven activities or the tactical officer charged with full-time drug interdiction work, the use of confidential informants represents an efficient and effective means of generating arrests. This is not a new development in law enforcement. A full 44 percent of patrol officers in Arthur Niederhoffer's 1969 sample of metropolitan police officers claimed that the best arrests come, "as a result of good information from an informer" (1969, 218). This longstanding pull has been exacerbated greatly by the aggressive war on drugs, in which the officer is the cat and the offender is the mouse. The mouse knows where all the other mice play and the cat wants in on the game. The most expedient way to find more mice is enlist the help of those mice that are at your disposal. Peter Manning's ethnography of the inner workings of metropolitan narcotics units illustrates this point well. Referring to detectives' views of informants, he observes that "officers had learned to see their possibilities for success as dependent on identifying, cultivating, working, and maintaining their informants. They assumed that this was the most fruitful way of working in large part because they had never done anything else, had received little or no formal training, had not seen other modes used, and because it was seen as an almost standard mode of working" (Manning 2004, 149). Simply stated, officers are pulled toward using confidential informants because doing so feeds the officers' occupational self-interest; informants represent the path of least resistance in the war on crime in general and on drugs in particular.

Although it has been thrust into the public eye in recent decades due to heightened media coverage and the war on drugs, the phenomenon of confidential informant usage has a long and storied tradition in law enforcement. Clifford Zimmerman (1994) and James Morton (1995) provide the most in-depth and far-reaching historical accounts of the practice. Focusing globally, Morton finds evidence of government officials coercing information from at-risk citizens dating as far back as ancient Greece. Zimmerman concentrates his historical account on the development of informant practices in England and the United States. He documents the British use of an "approver system" as far back as the late thirteenth century whereby entities of the state offered reduced sentences to convicted criminals in exchange for information that led to the conviction of a set number of their criminal counterparts. Zimmerman also documents the emergence, in the sixteenth century, of a "common informer system," wherein state officials paid common citizens in exchange for information about ongoing wrongdoing in the community. Both Zimmerman and Morton provide detailed historical analyses of legal and bureaucratic history of informant use in twentieth century Britain and America. Clearly, the United States and Britain are not the only countries to rely on confidential informants to advance the investigative efforts of law enforcement. Undercover: Police Surveillance in Comparative Perspective, edited by Cyrille Fijnaut and Gary Marx (1996), provides additional historical details as they relate to the phenomenon in France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Britain, Iceland, Sweden, Canada, and the United States.


Given the long tradition of reliance on confidential sources of information and the prominence of these sources in the daily operations of law enforcement, it should come as no surprise that there exists a wide body of literature on the topic. What is somewhat surprising is the limited depth associated with this body of published work. Generally speaking, the literature on confidential informants can be divided into two categories: training materials that provide pragmatic insight to law enforcement officers and scholarly works that apply a social science lens to the confidential informant phenomenon. The former category is comprised largely of book-length instructional treatises (Billingsley 2001b, 2003, 2009; Billingsley, Nemitz, and Bean 2001; E. Brown 2007; Cloyd 1982; Fitzgerald 2007; Harney and Cross 1960; Hanvey 1995; Madinger 1999; Mallory 2000; Motto and June 2000; Palmiotto 1984), government reports or agency manuals (Federal Bureau of Investigations 2005; Gardiner 2002; International Association of Chiefs of Police 1990; Janzen 1990; H. Katz 1990; Newburn and Merry 1990; Nugent, Leahy, and Connors 1991; U.S. Department of Justice 2005), and articles published in law enforcement trade journals, such as The Police Chief, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, and Law and Order (M. F. Brown 1985; Geberth 1979; Hamilton and Smykla 1994; Lee 1981; Kleinman 1980; Mount 1991; Rees 1980; Vasquez and Kelly 1980). Collectively, these works outline best practices in informant usage, provide a cursory overview of the legal landscape associated with informant usage, and draw attention to a host of potential pitfalls that are associated with the involvement of informants in police operations.

Two seasoned state and federal narcotics investigators, John Harney and Malachi Cross, got the ball rolling with their 1960 book, The Informer in Law Enforcement. Designed as both a descriptive treatise and an effort to dispel misconceptions about the role of informants in the criminal investigation process, the book advocates for a host of informant roles within the investigative process, details the various motives that lead persons to serve as informants, provides guidance on how to handle informants, and proffers a summary of the legal landscape of informant usage. A decade later, Carmine Motto (1971), a former Secret Service agent, presented Undercover, a trade book designed to outline the interrelated relationships between investigators, informants, and suspects. Based on years of experience and personal insights, Motto's book (which was updated and released in a second edition in 2000) sought to both inform law enforcement officers and provide the public with a look inside such relationships.

In the modern era, retired British police commander Roger Billingsley has been at the forefront of the applied literature on confidential informants (Billingsley 2001a, 2001b, 2003, 2009; Billingsley Nemitz, and Bean 2001). The books that he and other seasoned practitioners have published (Alvarez 1993; Cloyd 1982; Fitzgerald 2007, Grimes 2009; Hanvey 1995; Lyman 1987; Madinger 1999; Mallory 2000) provide a wealth of useful background information on different types of informants, their practical use in modern criminal investigations, and operational insights on how to most effectively nurture these intelligence assets. Designed principally for a practitioner audience, these training resources are descriptive and instructive in nature, intended to cover all the relevant topics that an in-service reader would need to maximize his or her agency's efforts to use covert intelligence sources, which include good-willed citizens reporting on isolated crime incidents, apprehended criminals seeking to curry leniency in charges, and paid informants. In this context, enlisting the assistance of known criminals to further criminal investigations is generally framed as a necessary evil, especially when dealing with hidden and/or networked criminality, such as narcotics distribution, gunrunning, or transactional property crime. Common chapter headings in these books include types of informants, recruitment, handling informants, compensation options, communication strategies, risk management strategies, ethical considerations," and "legal issues." The books are written from the viewpoint of seasoned insiders, and the authors are all current or retired police officers who draw on personal experiences to assist their law enforcement colleagues in navigating the trials and tribulations that go along with informant usage.

Primarily as a result of the centrality of informants within narcotics and organized crime investigations, numerous large law enforcement agencies and justice support organizations have published manuals or reports that add to the literature on confidential informants. For example, government agencies in the United States (H. Katz 1990; Nugent, Leahy, and Connors 1991; U.S. Department of Justice 2005) and the United Kingdom (Newburn and Merry 1990) have produced full-length reports outlining the legal landscape of informant usage, listing steps that can be taken to effectively utilize these assets within the context of various types of criminal investigations, and recommending structures and processes that have yielded the best results in this regard. In a similar vein, law enforcement support organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (1990) and the Police Executive Research Forum (Janzen 1990) have published resource manuals designed to provide actionable guidance on various aspects of confidential informant usage.

Not surprisingly, as criticism and scandal have beset agency reliance on confidential informants, oversight entities have conducted formal inquiries at the micro or macro level to remedy past transgressions and forge a path forward in the way of best practice articulation. Reports such as those issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (2005) or the U.S. Department of Justice (Gardiner 2002) stand as obvious examples in this respect. The practitioner-oriented literature is also interspersed with short articles in trade journals that amount to agency retrospectives or targeted practical guidance on various aspects of confidential informant usage (M. F. Brown 1985; Geberth 1979; Hight 1998; Kleinman 1980; Lee 1981; Mount 1991; Rees 1980; Vasquez and Kelly 1980).


Excerpted from Speaking Truth to Power by Dean A. Dabney, Richard Tewksbury. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Police and Confidential Informants 1

2 Study Methods 19

3 Types of Informants 28

4 Working with Informants 63

5 The Game: The Impact of Community Context on Informant Use 85

6 Maintaining Relationships with Informants 107

7 Benefits of Working with Informants 150

8 Pitfalls of Working with Informants 166

9 Summary and Implications 188

References 205

Index 213

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