by R.T. Lawton
Last month, we discussed where informants came from and some of the reasons they agreed to cooperate with law enforcement. So now, let's say a potential informant walked into your local agency with the intention of cooperating, or you could even "have a hammer" on a criminal and he has chosen to "work off his beef." What do you, as a cop, do at this point? That depends upon the agency you work for. They all have their own rules and policies, but some things are basic.
The first thing you want to know is what can he do for you. If all he knows is that there's a lot of late night traffic at the place next to his residence and he suspects something criminal is going on, then you have nothing more than a citizen's complaint. Take down the info, thank him if he's a walk-in citizen and check it out later. It might be something, and then again, it might not be more than a group of dedicated party friends. If it's a criminal you busted and then made an offer to cooperate, lock him up, he's shining you on.
If he has names, dates, and specific knowledge of criminal activities, then you write up an intelligence report covering every crime and criminal he knows and ever met. Next, you see if the guy can introduce an undercover agent into one of the participants, give probable cause for a search warrant, or otherwise assist your agency. If so, then you take down a personal history of your new C.I. (you want to know who his relatives are and how to find him later if things go wrong), you photograph him (once again, to show people in case you need to hunt hi down or need a photo line-up for witnesses if things go wrong), and you fingerprint him (to make sure he is who he says he is and to determine his past criminal record, because things can go wrong). We busted a guy on a package delivery where one of our agents posed as a UPS driver. We quickly flipped the new defendant. Even his lawyer went along with him cooperating. Problem was when his prints came back, the guy was already in the wind. Seems the U.S. Marshals were looking for him under another name. Took us a while to catch up to him again. No offer for cooperation was made this time, nor did he get bond.
If the potential C.I. walks in wearing a tin foil hat, you politely show him the door. On his way out, you ask him what other agencies he's been to. In the old days, there was a circuit for those types. It seems some of our fellow agencies occasionally needed a little laugh to brighten up their work day, therefore those in tin foil hats were often referred to the last agency that had somehow stepped on their toes. Unfortunately, not all weirdos believed in the protective powers of tin foil, thus it may have taken a while to recognize them for what they were. I once received a phone call from a stage hypnotist who had performed the night before at a police benefit. He was calling to volunteer his services in helping us recruit the "best" informants. In the background, I swore I could hear adult male giggling.
Most agencies have some restrictions on various categories of informants. For instance, the use of juveniles is not permitted unless there is signed permission from at least one parent. Some agencies say no juveniles at all. The use of a one or two-time felon might be permissible, but the use of a three-time habitual criminal may need special permission from a higher up supervisor. Use of a felon on parole or probation may also need the permission of parole or probation agent who supervises that felon. After all, the goal of parole/probation is to remove the felon from the influence of his criminal buddies and into a better, more positive environment where he can straighten out, whereas if he works as an informant, then you are throwing him back into the same situations that led to him getting busted in the first place. And, if your potential informant is hooked on drugs, he'll make a great drug snitch, but there are inherent problems. We had a C.I. we'll call Thomas. He was great at making heroin buys. We'd search him, give him the buy money and then surveill him going into the dealer's house. When Thomas came back out, he would hand over the ten caps of smack he'd just bought. We'd search him again to ensure he had no drugs on him and that he didn't keep any of the buy money for himself. It wasn't until trial that we found out Thomas was such a good customer that the dealer gave Thomas eleven caps of smack for that amount of buy money. Seems Thomas shot up the eleventh capsules while he was still in the house, thus the supposed evidence count and the money spent always balanced out.
All informants are given a number which is referred to in buy and surveillance reports instead of using the informant's name. True, the defendants will figure out who the informant really is in the end, but it delays the process and affords the informant a measure of protection for a while. Generally, it gives him time to relocate.
In many agencies, the informant also signs an Informant Agreement. This document serves to remind the cooperating individual of the terms of the agreement between him and the agency. It also says point blank that the informant is not a law enforcement agent, nor is he an employee of that agency, and therefore has none of the powers of a cop. You'd be surprised.
And, this brings us to guns. Always search the informant before meeting the bad guys. If it's an informant buy, then you want to be sure he has no drugs going in. You also count any money he has on him to ensure he doesn't buy any drugs for personal use. And, you search him for weapons. Do that same search if the informant is introducing you in an undercover capacity to the bad guys. You would not believe the number of times we found guns on informants while getting ready to go in on a deal. Their common retort is you have a gun, why can't I have one?
Let me count the ways things can go wrong.
Especially if the informant is carrying a gun.