At a particularly dismal moment in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," a disgusted undercover cop mutters, "It's a nation of rats." Not quite. But the film and the recent flap in the Northeast over t-shirts that demand "Stop Snitchin' " are calling attention to a part of the legal system that critics say has gotten out of control.
While it's impossible to get accurate counts due to the inherent secrecy of the practice, moderate estimates place the number of informants working for police agencies in the U.S. in the hundreds of thousands.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court OK'd the use of confidential informants 50 years ago, the practice has become a primary tool of the so-called war on drugs. As one court noted:
"Without informants, law enforcement authorities would be unable to penetrate and destroy organized crime syndicates, drug trafficking cartels, bank frauds, telephone solicitation scams, public corruption, terrorist gangs, money launderers, espionage rings, and the likes."
Critics counter that the practice has become a dangerous public policy, compromising the integrity of police work, endangering both informants and innocents, eroding confidence in the rule of law enforcement, and often producing bad information.
The Little Rock Police Department and the Pulaski County sheriff's office would not disclose the number of informants in their files.
The North Little Rock Police Department said it currently has 51 informants working with its narcotics unit. The Maumelle Police Department reported having 18 confidential informants, 10 males and eight females, though four of those have been "disqualified."
No statewide figures are kept. Keith Rutledge, the state drug director, said that if regional drug task forces are using informants, it is done -- and paid for -- "at the local level."
The way informants are handled varies widely, and that, too, is shrouded in secrecy. All four of the police agencies mentioned above stress that they make no promises to arrestees that the penalties they face will be reduced in exchange for cooperation.
All four reported, however, that if that person agrees to cooperate, information about his or her helpfulness may be conveyed to the prosecuting attorney. This takes the form of letters or recommendations that are also confidential. An informant has to trust the police.
"We tell you what you're charged with and give you a phone number to call," said Sgt. Robert Mourot, who heads the Street Narcotics Unit for the Little Rock police. "Once you bond out of jail, you can call us.
"If you ask, 'What are you going to do for me?' we say, 'What are you going to do for yourself? You got yourself into this spot. It's up to you to get yourself out of it.' "
Mourot said that if a person opts to become an informant, there are no guarantees. "All we can do," he said, "is document what they did." Police in North Little Rock, Maumelle and at the sheriff's office said they followed similar policies. What happens at the prosecutor's office is similarly opaque.
Critics of the expanded use of confidential informants see the interface between police and prosecutors as a kind of legal black hole, in which discretion with regard to using law-breakers meets discretion with regard to charging them.
John Johnson, chief deputy prosecuting attorney for Pulaski County, said, "Being a confidential informant is just an agreement between you and the police."
He added, however, that on receiving a report from police about a confidential informant, "We make a charging decision. We don't always charge. The options we have are to charge a felony, to send it back for more investigation, to reduce it to a misdemeanor, or to mark it DNF, 'Do not file.' "
Johnson noted that prosecutors consider many factors, including letters from teachers and employers, as well as information from the police. He explained, "There's just all sorts of communication that we have in trying to be just and be sure that the punishment fits the crime, but also the person who commits the crime."
A growing number of legal scholars see the practice of releasing some criminals to catch others as having unforeseen corrosive effects. For many, the most disturbing aspect of the process is its secrecy.
The presence of criminals acting, in effect, as secret agents for the police fosters distrust in certain communities and may lead to an increase in violence.
Lt. David Hudson, who oversees the Little Rock Police Department's two narcotics squads, said, "People who give us information do so willingly. They know the risks of cooperating with the police."
But other city residents might not know the risks they incur by having informants in their midst. Since informants' identities are secret, it is impossible to know how many, if any, of the murder victims in Little Rock last year were killed because they were found - -- or believed to be -- acting as police informants.
Secrecy limits the public's ability to weigh the cost of using informants against their liabilities. Each of the four departments mentioned here was asked how many arrests last year could be attributed to its use of informants. Only Maumelle answered, reporting "five."
Without being specific, the LRPD's Hudson insisted that the use of informants has "decreased the level of violence" by helping police clean out houses harboring drugs and weapons. "We've made neighborhoods a lot safer," he said.
Johnson, on the other hand, acknowledged, "I can tell you that I've prosecuted cases where someone was killed because they were suspected of being a snitch."
The lack of checks and balances is exacerbated by the lack of public records illuminating police and prosecutors' decisions regarding informants. As standards blur, with some people going to prison for crimes and others going to work for police, some scholars fear that the line between what's seen as lawful and unlawful is blurring as well.
Trust lies at the heart of the contract between police, the courts and the public. The problem with informants is that they are, essentially, betrayers of trust. And any agency that works with them gets tainted by association.
Suspicions about informants reflect on the agencies that use them. Secretive policies, while understandable, heighten, rather than dispel, those concerns.
As awareness of the costs of informant use has risen, so too have demands for some kind of accountability. Release of data on the number of informants being used in an area, along with the types of crimes for which they face charges, would not compromise an informant program, but could allow at least minimal public oversight.
The procedure for handling informants that's given to North Little Rock detectives starts out with a warning:
"The use of informants in law enforcement is an evil necessity...," it begins. "It is most important to remember that an informant works as an extension of law enforcement, and detectives are cautioned to ensure that anytime an informant is working for them that the constitutional rights of all individuals are protected."
The preface reminds detectives of the need to avoid entrapment and to corroborate, as much as possible, statements made by an informant. It concludes: "Two important items to remember when utilizing informants are:
"1. They should never be trusted.
"2. Their motive should always be considered."
That last is good advice for detectives. It may also be a good word of caution for every community whose police rely on informants.
As another cop in "The Departed" said to an informant who was working for him: "I got a problem. I run rat fucks like you, OK? I don't like 'em."
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