The House Judiciary Committee heard police and legal experts say there needs to be more oversight and tighter standards on the use of confidential informants in law enforcement at a July 19 hearing. The hearing was called by committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) to look into ways to avoid abuses such as those that led to the shooting death of 92-year-old Atlanta resident Kathryn Johnston last December.
Johnston was killed after opening fire on undercover Atlanta narcotics officers who were breaking down her door to serve a "no-knock" search warrant for cocaine. Those officers had obtained the warrant from an Atlanta magistrate by falsely telling him that a confidential informant had made drug buys at Johnston's location. Later that same day, those officers attempted to get that informant to lie and back them up, but the informant instead went to federal authorities. Two officers involved have since pleaded guilty to manslaughter, while a third awaits trial on false imprisonment charges.
While it was the Johnston killing that led directly to last month's hearing, concern over the widespread use of informants, or snitches, has been mounting for years, especially in regard to drug law enforcement. Hostility toward law enforcement either threatening low-level offenders to intimidate them into informing on others ("Do you want to be gang-raped for 30 years in prison instead?") or cultivating mercenary informers who infiltrate communities and set up drug deals for monetary gain has been simmering in poor and minority communities for years.
The "Stop Snitching" movement, much maligned by law enforcement officials as undermining the rule of law, is, at least in part, a direct consequence of the drug war's reliance on confidential informants. Especially in black communities, which have been hard hit the drug war, anger over drug war tactics, including the use of informants, is palpable.
Now, with Democrats once again in control of Congress, Congress is ready to listen -- and possibly to act. Rep. Conyers said at the hearing and in meetings with American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Drug Law Reform Project and Drug Policy Alliance staffers that is he preparing legislation to attempt to rein in the out of control use of informants. The use of informants is "totally out of control," said Conyers. "It's every law enforcement agency for itself. This is corrupting the entire criminal justice process," he warned.
"We've got a serious problem here that goes beyond coughing up cases where snitches were helpful," Conyers continued. "The whole criminal justice system is being intimidated by the way this thing is being run and in many cases, especially at the local level, mishandled... A lot of people have died because of misinformation, starting with Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta. Getting the wrong house, they cost the 92-year old woman her life. But then law enforcement tried to intimidate the confidential informant to clean the mess up. Then you get law enforcement involved in perpetrating the cover up of what is clearly criminal activity. So this is not a small deal that brings us here today and we are going to do something about it."
There will be more hearings to come, Conyers promised. "This is the first time that we have gotten into this matter in more than a dozen years... But this is only the tip of the iceberg. We've got to hold the most thorough hearings in recent American history on the whole question of the criminal justice system, which goes way beyond informants. It's been picked up and articulated by many of the witnesses, that we are talking about the culture of the law enforcement system and how it's got to be changed. One hearing starts us off, and I'm very proud of what we have accomplished here today."
At the hearing, law enforcement personnel and legal scholars alike acknowledged that the informant system is loosely supervised and can lead to corner-cutting and abuses by police. "The government's use of criminal informants is largely secretive, unregulated and unaccountable," Alexandra Natapoff, a Loyola Law School professor who studies the issue, told the panel.
The massive reliance on informants makes communities not safer but more dangerous, said Natapoff. "What does this mean for law abiding residents like Mrs. Johnston?" she asked. "It means they must live in close proximity to criminal offenders looking for a way to work off their liability. Indeed, it made Kathryn Johnston's home a target for a drug dealer. It also means that police in these neighborhoods tolerate petty drug offenses in exchange for information, and so addicts and low level dealers can often remain on the street. It also makes law enforcement less rigorous: police who rely heavily on informants are more likely to act on an uncorroborated tip from a suspected drug dealer. In other words, a neighborhood with many criminal informants in it is a more dangerous and insecure place to live."
The massive reliance on informants also corrodes police-community relations, Natapoff said. "This question about the use of confidential informants goes to the heart of the problem of police-community relations," she told the panel. "It's an historical problem in this country, it's not reducible to the problem of informing or snitching or stop snitching, but I would submit that the 20-year policy on the part of state, local and federal government of using confidential informants and sending criminals back into the community with some form of impunity and lenience, and turning a blind eye to their bad behavior, has increased the distrust between police and community."
The Rev. Markel Hutchins, pastor of the Philadelphia Baptist Church in Atlanta and a spokesman for the Johnston family, also addressed the hearing. "There is a problem with the culture of policing in America," Hutchins said. "And because of that culture, far too often police officers feel that they can do what they want to under the cover of law. This committee has a unique opportunity to help protect even the officers themselves that engage in this kind of behavior by insolating them from the capacity or the potential they have to engage in this kind of corrupt behavior."
There must be more accountability in the courts, said Hutchins. "I will submit to this committee that if the fabricated confidential informant that was mentioned and feloniously used in the Kathryn Johnston case had been required to appear before a judge, Ms. Johnston would still be alive today... It was just too easy for these police officers to go in front of a judge and to lie. They've engaged in this kind of practice for years and it's been happening all over the country... If police had done due diligence, they would have known that a 92-year old woman lived there in the home by herself. There was no corroboration. There was not any appropriate investigative work done. But I think that probably the most poignant thing that happened to Ms. Johnston is had she not been 92-years old, and had she been my age, 29-30 year old, and a young black man, we might not be having this hearing right now," Hutchins said.
Even National Narcotic Officers' Association Coalition President Ronald Brooks agreed that reforms are necessary. "We need to take an absolute hard line posture when law enforcement breaks the rules, like in any other profession," he told the committee. "The conduct at first blush committed in Atlanta, and in Tulia, and in Dallas, and in a host of other places was criminal conduct by law enforcement officers and that conduct should be punished vigorously... We need to instill an ethical culture that says that the ends never justify the means... We only have one opportunity to have credibility in our courts and in our communities," Brooks said.
"It was a really good hearing," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Conyers said he wants to introduce omnibus legislation overhauling the use of confidential informants. Right now, we and the ACLU Drug Policy Law Project are working with his office to come up with specific language," Piper said. "The question now is what the bill is going to look like. If anyone has suggestions, contact us or Conyers' office," he said.
"The hearing was amazing!" said Ana del Llano, informant campaign coordinator for the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. "We are hoping that when Congress comes back from recess in September, we will be able to have a bill filed."
Advocates are focusing on a number of reforms surrounding the use of informants:
* Guidelines on the use and regulation of informants'
ãIt's about time -- both for hearings and for the passage of legislation to rein in the snitchesä, said Nora Callahan, director of the November Coalition, a drug reform group that concentrates on federal drug war prisoners. "The informant system is a secret, hidden policing system," she said. "When queried, most police departments, federal, state and local, don't have any written policy or procedures with regard to their use of informants. How dependent is law enforcement on a system of snitches? Police departments can't give us data on snitches. Researchers have discovered that about 90% of search warrants are granted by judges who see nothing more than an officer's statement from a confidential informant. They bust down doors on words of people trading information for police favors."
The system is truly pernicious, Callahan argued. "Some psychologists teach police departments how to turn people into cooperators, also called informers or snitches. It's time, the threat of long years in prison, that reduces people to rolling over on their mothers, or their best friends," she said.
Now, at long last, Congress may intervene. But last month's hearing was only the beginning.
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