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Working with Informants.

Operational Recommendations

Informants can provide valuable information, but if not handled appropriately, they can create problems for agencies that use them. A properly implemented program can guide officers while holding them, and the informants, accountable for their actions. [1]

Once law enforcement agencies have set in place the necessary rules and regulations to govern the actions of informants, how do they actually operate them in a meaningful and productive manner? Because using informants poses certain risks, police administrators must ensure that certain safeguards exist and that officers always exhibit professional conduct when dealing with informants and their information.

No agency can predict the fallout that may result from unprofessional or inattentive conduct by police officers when dealing with informant sources. Reputations, for both the officer and the department, can suffer irreparable damage. Agencies that use informants will always remain susceptible to litigation; however, through continued training and a high degree of professionalism, police agencies can help reduce problems for their department.

MAINTAINING THE RELATIONSHIP

When working with informants, officers must maintain a strictly professional relationship at all times. Officers always must treat informants with dignity and respect, including keeping promises, telling informants the truth, and safeguarding their confidentiality.

Keeping Promises

Officers must keep the promises they make to informants. Law enforcement has a reputation to uphold, even among those informants who are known or suspected criminals. Police officers who break promises will find it difficult to gain the cooperation of future sources. Officers should exercise great care when making any promises to an informant, whether they concern money, protection, relocation, or other benefits. In situations where the informant will testify, officers should consult the prosecutor prior to discussing promises or offers of assistance of any type with the informant.

Telling the Truth

Officers always should tell the truth to informants unless it becomes necessary to protect the integrity of a case or to safeguard the confidentiality of others involved. Officers should not underestimate the informant's ability to detect deception, no matter how well disguised. If it becomes necessary to withhold information from informants, officers should explain that they simply do not have a need for the information. The informants already may know the information and may have inquired just to test the officer's truthfulness. If informants cannot trust officers on simple matters, then they may find it difficult to trust an officer's word on matters directly related to more important issues (e.g., their safety). Once informants decide that they cannot trust an officer, they may stop or slow the amount of significant information they give that officer.

Safeguarding Confidentiality

The confidential relationship of an informant with the law enforcement agency remains essential to the informant's long-term and continued use, especially with a very productive informant with unique access to information. The agency must ensure that it does not disclose the relationship. Officers should refrain from needlessly commenting around other individuals about the identity of the informant, the informant's activity, or the nature of the information provided by the informant. Also, because subjects of investigations may have the resources to access an informant's telephone records, departments should use a "hello phone," which may further serve to protect the confidentiality of the informant. [2] Informants who get injured, either personally or professionally, due to an unauthorized disclosure of their identities or of the information they provided, may sue the department and create further unnecessary problems.

At the same time, officers should encourage informants to keep the relationship confidential Police officers, of course, cannot force informants to do so, but if the informant's identity and cooperation become known, it remains essential that the information did not come from the officer or the agency. Although a disclosure may hamper the investigation, in all likelihood, the agency will not be held responsible for the inevitable problems such a disclosure will create.

AVOIDING RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS

Officers must avoid certain circumstances that may jeopardize the officer-informant relationship These include forming business partnerships accepting gifts or loans, making unprofessional comments and meeting informants in inappropriate places.

Forming Business Relationships

Officers never must use the specialized knowledge or expertise of the informant for personal profit By entering into a business relationship with informants, police officers place both themselves and their agencies in an untenable situation. While some informants may offer such information to gain favor with the officer, others may do so in an effort to compromise the officer and gain control of the relationship Whatever the reason, officers always must remember that the details of the relationship with an informant eventually will become public knowledge and that the department's professional reputation may suffer if officers must defend their actions either in a criminal prosecution or an internal affairs investigation.

Accepting Loans or Gifts

Officers never should borrow money from informants, even for incidental expenses, such as lunch. If the relationship with the informant becomes strained or otherwise difficult, the informant's story may vary from the officer's on the circumstances of the loan. The officer and police agency can suffer needlessly over such behavior, especially if the money borrowed comes from a payment from the agency to the informant.

The acceptance of gifts represents another area that, if not handled properly, can create difficulties for an officer. Though it may seem harmless at the time, receiving anything from an informant can create an atmosphere that some may perceive as improper. For similar reasons, officers never should lend money or give gifts to informants. Yet, in some cultures, the informants may perceive the refusal to accept gifts as a personal affront. In these rare situations where officers deem it best to accept gifts, they must carefully document the circumstances under which they received them, then log the items in the police property room. In cases involving jewelry or other items an informant would expect to see an officer wearing, the officer can retrieve them from the property room prior to each meeting with the informant and, after the meeting, promptly check the items back into the property room for safekeeping. By appropriately documenting the situation, officers can adequately answer any questions of propriet y that may arise from their accepting gifts.

Making Unprofessional Comments

Officers should avoid language that informants may perceive as offensive (e.g., being called snitches or squeals), which can damage an already-delicate relationship. Careless remarks or jokes made by a law enforcement officer in the presence of an informant often can boomerang with severe consequences. Off-color remarks containing sexual, racial, or other biases may result in fallout, ranging from public embarrassment to litigation. Under questioning in a courtroom, unprofessional comments may serve to undermine the officer's credibility with a jury and the agency's credibility with the public, as well.

Additionally, officers must never assume that informants will not provide information to others. With today's technology, informants can covertly record their conversations with officers with little or no difficulty and then use these recordings to influence the professional relationship or, ultimately, the career of the officer. Therefore, police officers always must use caution in their communications with informants.

Meeting in Inappropriate Places

Police officers should choose the best-suited locations for meeting and debriefing informants. For example, hotels help keep anonymity, provide multiple entrances and exits, and generally are conveniently located. However, officers should avoid meeting informants of the opposite sex in hotel rooms without another officer present. The informant and the officer should feel comfortable with any meeting location. Both should dress appropriately for the debriefing, taking into account whether casual or more formal dress attire conforms with a particular meeting place.

VERIFYING INFORMATION

Officers should make every effort to verify and substantiate through independent means all information the informant provides. Failure to do so can result in negative consequences, not only for the law enforcement agency but for innocent civilians, as well. For example, acting on information from informants, law enforcement agencies have served search warrants at the wrong addresses. Often, this error results from a miscommunication between officers and informants or occasionally from informants with alternative, more corrupt motives. Whatever the cause, officers must verify the information provided by informants through such means as utility records, commercial databases, public documents, physical surveillance, or even other informant sources.

Even when police use audio recordings to consensually monitor criminal activities, they should not solely rely on the recording without attempting to verify its authenticity. For example, if the voice on the recording is someone other than the individual specified by the informant, an agency's credibility would suffer greatly.

CONCLUSION

Aside from the many regulations designed to control the actions of criminal informant sources, an officer's conduct can make the difference between the success and failure of a case. Officers must avoid situations and issues that others may construe as inappropriate. By doing so, they can enhance the cohesiveness of the officer-informant relationship while producing the necessary information essential to successful investigations.

Although improper officer-informant relationships rarely occur, the conduct of police officers will remain subject to greater scrutiny than that of informants. Because allegations can seriously damage the credibility of a law enforcement agency, officers who operate informants must remain aware of potentially disastrous situations and their consequences. By maintaining a strictly professional relationship with informant sources, the officer and the agency can limit those situations that could damage both personal and professional reputations, help avoid litigation, and allow law enforcement to continue the use of this vital investigative resource.

Special Agent Hight serves in the FBI's Tulsa, Oklahoma, resident agency.

Endnote

(1.) For information on establishing informant guidelines, see James E. Hight, "Avoiding the Informant Trap: A Blueprint for Control," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 1998, 1.

(2.) A hello phone is a telephone line in the police department that is either unlisted or listed to a fictitious subscriber and that officers can answer without identifying themselves or their agency.
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Author:Hight, James E.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
Words:1635
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