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November 8, 2009 -- Buffalo News (NY)

Informants: Walking Thin Line In Village Of Attica

Would-Be Informant Says Police Coerced Her into Cooperation

By Michael Beebe, News Staff Reporter

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Bianca Hervey, a 20-year-old college student, was returning home to her apartment in Attica when a village police officer drove up behind her, put on his flashing lights and pulled her over.

It was 3 p.m. on Sept. 9, and she had just finished classes for the day at the Genesee Community College campus in nearby Warsaw. She was a block from her house.

"Do you know why I stopped you?" Hervey recalled the young officer asking her. "He told me I didn't have a license."

Hervey's driver's license, Officer Christopher Graham told her, had been suspended for failing to pay traffic tickets. He arrested her.

Graham handcuffed her, put her in the back of the police cruiser and took her to police headquarters. Her car was impounded and towed away.

At the police station, Graham handcuffed Hervey to a bench and told her she would probably spend the night in jail, Hervey said.

"I was bawling my eyes out," she said.

But then Graham offered her a way out of her problems.

Become a confidential informant for the Wyoming County Drug Task Force, he told her, and he could make the charges disappear.

Using confidential informants has been a part of police life since cops started arresting criminals. Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover formalized their use with the Top Echelon Criminal Informant Program to go after what Hoover called "the organized hoodlum element."

The idea is simple. To catch a criminal, you need someone on the inside who knows what they do.

Police departments throughout the country use people arrested on drug charges to inform on others. In return, their charges are reduced or dismissed.

Those involved in narcotics investigations say it's essential that police use those already involved in the drug trade.

"There has to be a nexus into the drug world," said a veteran officer who worked narcotics cases for five years in Western New York.

"If there is no connection," he said, "you're asking them to introduce themselves into a seedy underworld of drugs, corruption and violence, so you can gain some future targets."

But Hervey said she doesn't use drugs and, having just moved from Batavia to the tiny village of Attica, doesn't know anyone in Attica who does.

That didn't stop her recruitment as a confidential informant.

"He [Graham] said if there was someone I know who sells drugs, I would tell them I would meet them in the Burger King, like I was going to sell them drugs.

"He had me scared," Hervey said in an interview with The Buffalo News. "He even said if I didn't sign this paper, I would spend the night in jail."

She signed the contract, Graham took the handcuffs off her, and she became the newest confidential informant for the countywide drug task force.

That is until she got home and called her father, labor lawyer Richard Furlong, who went ballistic at what she had done.

After chewing out his daughter for failing to pay the traffic tickets and getting her license suspended, Furlong, a combative attorney who represents unions in their negotiations with management, went to see Attica Police Chief William Smith.

"I told him I was extremely distressed about taking a kid, scaring the daylights out of her, and using that to make her a drug informant," Furlong said.

Furlong said he is close to his daughter, talks to her daily, and is convinced she is telling him the truth that she does not use drugs, or hang around with anyone who does.

He and Hervey voided the confidential informant agreement; she paid her traffic fines and her driver's license was restored.

But Furlong said that's not the end of the story.

The Village of Attica and Wyoming County have not changed their policy on drug informants, he said, and Furlong remains distressed not only about what happened to his daughter, but what could happen to any other young person stopped by the police in Wyoming County.

"The police station is two blocks away from Attica prison," Furlong said of his conversation with the police chief. "I told him there are guys in there who are informants who can't be with the regular population because they'd get killed."

"I told him it was utterly irresponsible," he added. "I told him you're going to find a kid in the ditch with his throat slashed, or raped because they were informing on drug dealers."

Informant Killed

That happened in May 2008 in Tallahassee, Fla., when police signed up a Florida State University graduate, Rachel Hoffman, as a drug informant after arresting her on a marijuana charge. Hoffman, 23, was killed by two alleged drug dealers after police gave her money to buy drugs and a gun from the two men, but then lost their surveillance of her in the ensuing drug buy.

The Florida Legislature passed Rachel's Law to stiffen oversight on the use of confidential informants.

Smith, the police chief, doesn't apologize for his department's actions.

"Mr. Furlong doesn't like the way police do things, I guess," Smith told The News. "He doesn't like the way it's done, and I can't change his mind. It is what it is."

Won't Discuss Policy

Smith, who became the Attica chief after he retired as a lieutenant in the Buffalo Police Department's narcotics squad, refused to discuss his department's informant policy.

"All I can tell you is that I would never, after working 32 years in the city of Buffalo and out here, I would never divulge to you, or anybody else, how anybody operates," Smith said. "That is something that would never be divulged."

Peter Christ, who retired from the Tonawanda Police Department as a captain and founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said recruiting someone who doesn't use drugs as a drug informant is one of the reasons America is losing the war on drugs.

"When you have a doomed, failed policy," Christ said, whose organization now has more than 2,000 former cops working against the country's drug policies, "these are the kinds of things you do to try to make it seem like it's working."

Furlong took his complaints to the Attica Village Board.

"I told the board, I'm not here as a taxpayer, or as a citizen, I'm here as a parent," said Furlong, who lives in Warsaw. "This policy is taking kids who are not involved in drugs and putting a huge target on their back."

"I told them, I really applaud all efforts to get drugs off the street," Furlong added. "I represent police unions and I have the utmost respect for law enforcement."

But he failed to sway the board or Mayor William P. Lepsch.

"I support our police chief 100 percent," Lepsch told The News.

Lepsch was asked about Furlong's contention that Smith is endangering young people not involved in drugs by inducing them to act as confidential informants against drug traffickers.

"I understand that she has decided not to do it, so that's the end of that," Lepsch said. "It was her choice. She wasn't forced to do it."

After Furlong left the meeting, Lepsch said, the board discussed what he said.

"It was decided by the board that we would follow the chief; that's the policy of the department," the mayor said.

Neither Wyoming County Sheriff Ferris Heimann, nor District Attorney Gerald Stout has a problem with how Smith's department handled the case.

"I think if you talk to people who have task forces anywhere," the sheriff said, "the policy would be similar. I'm not going to talk about a specific case."

Impressive Results

Smith started the task force four years ago, said Stout, the county's chief prosecutor, and its results have been impressive.

"He's very knowledgeable," he said of Smith. "He's come down here and he has recruited some police officers who volunteer their time from the police departments we have here, and the Sheriff's Department. They've done a great job, they really have."

Asked about recruiting someone who said she is not part of the drug trade, Stout responded to The News: "But she agreed to do it."

Although Hervey's contract said she would be a confidential informant, the last clause said that if needed, she might have to testify in open court. A veteran police officer who worked narcotics cases, who asked not to be identified, said there is always a risk involved in using informants, but said they were necessary.

"When people have something to lose, when you have a good felony drug charge against them, there's a risk associated," he said.

"First, the risk of getting injured, but also the risk that the people you are ratting out would find out it's you. You're carrying a scarlet letter; you're always looking over your shoulder."

For a drug informant to work in a small village like Attica, he said, the risk is even greater, especially if the informant is not already part of the drug scene.

"Everyone knows each other," he said. "Every family knows each other. You become an informant there, you're marked for life.

Also visit our "Informants: Resources for a Snitch Culture" section.

Alos visit our "No New Prisons" section.

Alos visit our "Meth Madness" section.

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