By: Lou Savelli
Properly Managing Criminal Informants while Protecting Yourself,
the Informant, the Community and Your Agency
Dealing with informants can be a risky business! Some informants, by their mere nature, can pose many problems to an inexperienced and untrained law enforcement officer and a host of other problems for the officer’s agency. While the utilization of informants are a necessary and useful tool to enhance law enforcement efforts, agencies need to provide narrowly focused training that targets informant management to provide officers with the knowledge, skills and street smarts to effectively handle criminals who are, quite often, experts at manipulating the system as well as people and even law enforcement officers.
Like in the title of this article, “You can dance with the devil but don’t let him lead”, I am, by no means, inferring that all informants are devils. I am also not naïve enough to say that all informants are not capable of wrongdoing while working in that capacity. To clarify, all informants pose a potential for problems and the best way to keep them from becoming problems is by implementing controls and maintaining these controls for as long as you are working with them. In fact, I use an acronym, C.O.N.T.R.O.L.S., to help my law enforcement colleagues remember effective practices for dealing with informants.
Besides using C.O.N.T.R.O.L.S, effective informant management should include a comprehensive training program. The program should include several focused training modules to provide law enforcement officers with the tools needed to cultivate, manage and deploy informants in a safe, controlled and legal manner. These training modules should mirror the disciplines necessary for effective informant management. Effective informant management must involve, or provide, (1) a clear understanding of informants, (2) cultivating informants, (3) registering informants, (4) establishing the credibility and integrity of informants, (5) vetting informants, (6) managing informant incentives and compensation, (7) training informants, (8) deployment, (9) the creation and adherence to comprehensive informant management policy and procedures, (10) administrative duties and paperwork, (11) identifying problem informants, (12) officer integrity and professionalism, (13) informant safety, (14) officer safety, and (15) terminating a relationship with an informant.
A clear understanding of informants
Any law enforcement officer dealing with informants in any capacity must have a clear understanding of informants, their capabilities, limitations, legal guidelines and potential for problems. Law enforcement officers must be able to identify the various personality types of informants and their motivations. Understanding leads to safeguards and protection of the individual law enforcement officer, fellow officers and the agency’s policies. Informants are complex individuals who often ride the line between the law and criminals and choose to balance their lives within these realms for their own benefit but must be handled properly by a law enforcement handler who intricately understands the informant’s limitations.
The most common type of informant is the criminal informant. The criminal informant is most often cultivated by a law enforcement officer needing the services of an informant to uncover criminal activity or infiltrate a criminal organization. This often starts with the arrest of a criminal and the careful cultivation by a law enforcement officer through interviewing, debriefing or simple conversation. This important secondary contact is, quite often, the most honest and important evaluation a law enforcement officer will make of the informant. During the cultivation phase, law enforcement officers can assess the informant’s attitude toward the criminal justice system, his acceptance of responsibility for his actions and his willingness to assist law enforcement in the endeavor to uncover and combat crime.
In order to properly manage informants, and to provide a layer of confidentiality, law enforcement officers should enter the informant into an official registration procedure. Here, the informant is confidentially, but fully, documented as entering into an agreement to work with law enforcement. This agreement is usually part of a cooperation agreement or memorandum of understanding between the law enforcement officer(s), the prosecutor, other agencies such as parole and probation, and the informant for a specified benefit. The benefit for the informant can range from court consideration of a reduced or vacated sentence, credit with parole or probation, cash payments or some other benefit within the realm of cooperation. By registering informants, a law enforcement officer is documenting his use and establishing the official nature of the informant-law enforcement relationship. With registration comes a myriad of follow-up documentation and procedures.
Establishing the credibility and integrity of informants
Before any informant should be utilized, his credibility and integrity must be established. Even in the beginning stages of dealing with an informant, potential dangers exist for the law enforcement officer warranting the careful confirmation of the credibility and integrity of the informant. The informant’s credibility can be established by the information provided. Corroboration of the informant’s information is a good start. The informant’s ability to be forthcoming with information enhances his credibility and his willingness to accept responsibility for his past actions and provide information into his accomplices can only add to this credibility. To show integrity, the informant can be tested as well as questioned with difficult issues. How the informant reacts to these issues can validate his integrity.
By vetting informants, the law enforcement officer will be conducting an extensive background check but taking extreme caution to avoid exposing the informant’s willingness to cooperate. A thorough vetting procedure should include, but is not limited to, criminal history, Probation/Parole Status, employment history, family history, online activity, financial background, interview previous arresting officers and handlers and validating all personal and other information provided by the informant. Vetting the informant should also include an evaluation of the informant’s ability to willingly provide information without much prodding by a law enforcement officer.
Managing informant incentives and compensation
Informants only work to benefit themselves, or someone close to them. It is important for law enforcement officers to carefully manage informant incentives and compensation pursuant to cooperation. Some criminal informants will try to obtain more benefits than are commensurate with their cooperation, often, because of the mere nature of who they are and what they do (crime). Informant incentives and compensation should be narrowly limited to the cooperation agreement set forth by the prosecutor, informant handler and/or law enforcement supervisor during the beginning of the cooperation. This may have been agreed upon with the approval of the informant’s attorney. Unless approval by the prosecutor, or special circumstances exist, the handling law enforcement officer should not exceed or diminish incentives or compensation to the informant. Of course, when the informant is working outside of, or beyond, a cooperation agreement with the court or the prosecutor, the law enforcement officer or supervisor has control over the management of incentives and compensation. In that case, fairness should be the guide.
To ensure informants act according to instructions and procedure, especially in the performance of duty where tactical operations will result or undercover officers are accompanying informants, careful training must be conducted. While informants do not attend academies or sit through many hours of classroom training, detailed instruction must be conducted by the handler and handler’s supervisor with the informant. The only way to ensure the informant is fully aware of the methods to accomplish his tasks and follow proper procedures, is for the law enforcement handler to train the informant frequently and question the informant on his knowledge of the procedures. Another part of this training involves monitoring the informant during undercover performance, through physical and electronic surveillance to verify adherence to instructions and proper performance. A training record of instructions provided to the informant can be maintained on the confidential informant file.
Deploying informants during undercover assignments should be taken seriously, whether the informant will be accompanying an undercover officer or acting alone. Informant deployment must be carefully and meticulously planned for the success, integrity and safety of specific operations and overall investigations. Deploying informants, obviously, is not the same as deploying undercover officers. Informants can easily become paranoid, often act unpredictably, deviate from the tactical operation plan and potentially can compromise the safety and integrity of an investigation. The law enforcement handler must carefully train the informant on deployment rules and take corrective action when procedures are not followed. Informant deployment, in the beginning, should be limited to simple actions requiring minimal risk and gradually increased to more difficult tasks with greater risk as long as the informant has continually displayed integrity and the ability to follow instructions.
Creation and adherence to comprehensive informant management policy and procedures
In today’s law enforcement environment, especially among critics of law enforcement efforts against drug trafficking, much criticism has been given to the lack, or incompleteness, of policy and procedure relating to informants. Some of these critics may be correct in their beliefs since some agencies lack proper or complete policy and procedures relating to informants. The most effective way to ensure proper management of informants is to create (if policy and procedures are not already in place) and follow comprehensive and concise policy and procedures that provide detailed instructions for dealing with informants. Such policy needs to address issues from interviewing potential informants to terminating problematic informants and everything in between as well as specific procedures to follow for each issue.
Administrative duties and paperwork
Managing informants is not all fun and games. It must involve careful and confidential documentation of the informant’s personal and historical information as well as documentation of the activities, interviews and initial reports validating the informant’s journey from defendant, or other, to cooperator. Registration forms, informant intelligence interviews and corroboration reports must be completed and filed with all the previous documentation in the informant file. Any contact, phone conversation, payment or training must be documented along with arrests, seizure of evidence or informant shortcomings. Most agencies require the usual informant documentation forms be completed and follow-up reports written with any pertinent activity or information that arises. Law enforcement handlers can easily open themselves up to scrutiny, or disciplinary action, when administrative duties or required paperwork is not filed in a timely manner, or worse, not filed at all.
Identifying problem informants
When you look at all informants as having the potential for becoming problematic, it will be easier to identify problem informants or actions or omissions inconsistent with an honest informant who is following procedures. There are, however, many indicators of an informant who can pose difficulties in handling or help identify informant integrity issues. To only name a few, informant actions that are indicative of posing problems or potential problems are: the informant is not forthcoming with information; the informant is caught lying about an activity or information; the informant attempts to dictate how his deployment will occur; the informant purposely omits information pertinent to his activities; the informant is uncharacteristically not paranoid about his identity being known to others; the informant is inexplicably late for meetings with his handler and the informant does not have an explanation for his inability to report to his handler. Any indicator should be carefully investigated and the informant, if warranted, should be placed on ‘administrative hold’ until the investigation is complete.
Officer Integrity and Professionalism
Most, if not all criminal informants emerge from a world filled with lies, lack of integrity and a lack of honor. One of the two most important traits any law enforcement officer dealing with informants must display, at all times, is integrity. The other is professionalism. They should, of course, go hand in hand or be interchangeable. Establishing in the beginning, and continuing until the end, that the law enforcement officer managing any informant has integrity and acts with professionalism will send a clear message to the informant. That message states the officer is honest, plays by the rules (and laws) and will not compromise his integrity for anyone. It also states that the officer is a consummate professional who follows department policy, expects the truth and documents every pertinent action, good or bad. Experience has told me on many occasions, informants prefer to work with a law enforcement officer who shows integrity and professionalism. The informant knows what he is expected to do and understands that the officer is going to protect the informant’s identity. He also knows the officer’s commitment to the safety, and confidentiality, of the informant will not waiver.
It is the responsibility of any law enforcement officer involved in the management of informants to maintain the safety of the informant at all times, even if it means to protect the informant from himself. It is important to remember that informants are not undercover law enforcement officers and they will not act like law enforcement officers in similar situations. Their paranoia or undisciplined nature leads to mistakes and failure to follow procedures. From my experience, informant safety is usually compromised by the informant himself. Of the most common mistakes leading to informant danger is deviation from the tactical operation plan. When an informant does something outside the prescribed plan, it can throw off the entire operation. It can range from an increased potential for danger to the informant or back-up teams to a situation leading to the injury or death of the informant. Informant deviation from the tactical operation plan can cause surveillance personnel to lose sight of the informant or cause communication between the informant and the back-up teams to be cut off or hindered. Informant safety is also a concern due to the nature of crime and criminals. Protecting the informant from a criminal target starts with proper planning and explicit instructions on how to follow the plan. Another part of informant safety is to protect the informant’s identity and exposure to anyone who is not critical to your tactical operations. However, anyone who is involved in the tactical execution of your operations must be able to identify your informant in case the ‘you know what’ hits the fan and they have to move in and save his butt!
Never lose sight that the actions of the informant can greatly increase the exposure to danger of the handler, the supervisor and back-up teams. When the informant is placed in a dangerous or life-threatening situation, or places himself in such a situation, it is the law enforcement officers in that back-up team who will come to the rescue, often, at great risk to their own lives. Officer safety must be the responsibility of everyone involved. The informant, the handler, the supervisor and the back-up teams must take every meeting, deployment or contact with the informant as a potential for danger. Planning, training, integrity, alertness and accountability on everyone’s part will ensure the safety of all concerned.
Terminating a relationship with an informant
There comes a time in every law enforcement officer’s career, for those who manage informants, to terminate the informant for a variety of reasons. Mostly, informants are terminated, or deactivated, for lack of productivity, lying or criminal activity. When this occurs, it is good practice, and maybe good policy, to do so in a dignified and professional manner. Informants who have not lived up to their end of the cooperation agreement, to whatever degree, should no longer be used as active informants. Terminate the informant face to face and inform him of your reasons for the termination. Be clear, concise, complete and committed. Don’t let the informant manipulate you into changing your mind. They are experts at manipulating people. Your conclusion, based on facts and the informant’s performance, or lack thereof, is your motivation and the will to cover your own butt, should be your guide. Any informant who does not produce results, lies to his handler, or commits crimes is probably guilty of all three. This person is an informant you need to get out of your life, quickly and officially. Document it immediately.
Informants, if properly managed, are an effective tool used to minimize the risk to fellow law enforcement officers, especially undercover officers, and can greatly enhance enforcement and investigative efforts. Truthfully, much of the problem-minimization with informants lies in the hands of the informant handler and his or her supervisor. Firm, effective and legal guidelines imposed upon the informant will save mounds of trouble and volumes of paperwork as well as saving lives. In short, when it comes to informants, C.O.N.T.R.O.L.S. are the law enforcement officer’s best friend.
And remember, you can dance with the devil, but don’t let him lead!
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