Criminal investigation and the work of detectives is an important aspect of police work. Part of that work entails the pursuit of high quality information, which aids in protecting the public. An informant is an individual who provides privileged information to a law enforcement agency (Dictionary, n.d.). Although it might seem straight forward to develop informants, in practice it is a very complicated skill that is learned. In this brief paper, we will discuss several interviewing techniques that have been used to turn an organized crime member into an informant.
In the Hole
One of the best ways to turn an organized criminal into an informant is to find individuals who are in a position where there is no rational choice other than to provide information. Specifically, this can be done by finding individuals who are in trouble with the law and providing them with a way out or with less of a sentence. This tactic has a very strong appeal to an individual’s will to be free, which is an innate component of human reality (United Nations, 2006). In order to exemplify this position, consider the example of Joe Anastasio.
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Anastasio is a 53 year old Caucasian male who has an interesting background. He served his country, the United States of America, in the armed services during the 1970’s (Bass, 2010). Like many discharged or retired military men, Anastasio left the service and pursued odd end jobs such as a night-time security guard. During his tenure as a security guard, Anastasio stole historical documents of value from a library (Bass, 2010). He was caught and placed on probation as a part of his sentence (Bass, 2010).
There are several important things that can be learned of Anastasio based upon his history. First, he has a sense of duty or a moral right and wrong by actively serving his country in the armed services. Even if he was drafted, there is something to be said by the fact that he reported for duty and served, presumably, honorably. Second, he pursued employment. This indicates some type of internal drive or motivation towards reaching a higher potential. He, like many other Americans, was chasing the American dream. Third, based upon all of this character and circumstantial evidence, it seems as though Anastasio’s crime was a temporary lack of moral judgment. This same character evidence suggests that it is reasonable for Anastasio to want to rebuild his reputation and character after his crime.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation contacted Anastasio and asked him if he would like to act as an undercover informant as a condition of his parole (Bass, 2010). They approached Anastasio in a subtle way and asked him directly. In my opinion, this was the proper course of action because Anastasio was “ripe” for the transition to an informant. As expected, Anastasio jumped on the opportunity. He has since participated in several investigations and recently played an important role in putting a racist group behind bars (Bass, 2010). He was not paid for his role or for his performance (Bass, 2010). He did it completely as a condition of his probation (Bass, 2010).
Clearly, the power of one’s character coupled with a losing position can play an important role in the transition from a criminal to an informant. Although Anastasio’s example is low-level and straight forward, there are similarities to other high-level instances. For instance, consider a drug dealer who is caught and interviewed, either before or after being charged. Behaviorally, there are some key changes an individual undergoes when he or she leaves the comfort of a group; an isolated person with the sudden loss of a support system is very vulnerable (Ambrus, Greiner, & Pathak, 2009). The interviewer could portray this isolation in different ways, such as leaving the criminal alone and secured in an interview room for an appropriate time period according to department regulations. Reducing the charges or dismissing the charges in exchange for the criminal providing information as an informant is a very reasonable outcome in this type of situation.
In order to function and operate in the world, everybody needs or wants certain things. Consider, for instance, an average American individual. This person needs food, water, love, support, and security. This person also likely wants a reliable car, a reliable home, and nice clothing. In order to turn a criminal into an informant, law enforcement could focus on providing a material or immaterial object to a potential informant. This type of transition from an organized criminal to an informant is very much a negotiation. The key difference between this approach and the approach in the above section is that this approach requires an actual transfer of material goods, whereas the previous approach involved the threat of punishment.
Recently, a scandal regarding informants erupted in Brooklyn, NY (Aubrey, 2008). A police officer regularly relied on informants to provide information that was used against several criminals (Aubrey, 2008). In return, the police officer compensated the informants for their assistance. However, instead of paying the informants with cash, the officer instead paid the informants with cocaine seized from drug busts (Aubrey, 2008).
The actions of the Brooklyn, NY narcotics officer has had several repercussions to the entire police-informant community. First, the police officer’s conduct calls into question the ethical nature of using informants (Aubrey, 2008). Does paying informants reduce the quality of information? In my opinion, this is mitigated by selecting informants carefully. Second, the police officer’s conduct undermines all of the investigations that involved informants paid with cocaine. Over 183 cases were consequently overturned (Aubrey, 2008). Third, the police officer’s conduct tarnished the entire police force’s reputation within the Brooklyn community. These are all serious consequences that must be kept in mind when offering a criminal a material or immaterial object in return for information.
There are situations where criminals can be turned into informants by providing material goods or service in a professional and ethical way. Consider, for instance, the United States Marshals. US Marshals are regularly tasked with protecting informants during investigations, trials, and beyond (U.S. Marshals Service, 2009). In reviewing the text of interviews provided by Mathilde Turcotte, it is clear that many informants can be “bought” in exchange for security or money. This exchange of services is ethically sound and professional, however Turcotte emphasizes that in these situations, informants’ loyalty must constantly be evaluated.
Many states and attorney generals have adopted regulations that guide a police officer’s relationship with an informant. These regulations are especially pertinent when there is an exchange of a material good or service for information (Turcotte, 2008). Although the regulations have enhanced the understanding of acceptable police-informant relationships, it has unfortunately propagated a false sense of security amongst law enforcement (Turcotte, 2008). Some officers falsely believe that their relationship with an informant will be positive if the regulations are followed (Turcotte, 2008). This is not correct, as evidenced by the first-hand experience Turcotte provides; many law enforcement agents commented that every relationship with an informant was unique in its own way (Turcotte, 2008).
Developing an Informant
In addition to the motives that bring criminals to consider passing information to law enforcement, there are several key components that law enforcement officers can use to cultivate the development of an informant. This is the most important part of turning a criminal into an informant; if the criminal has any doubts whatsoever, he or she will walk away (Education Development Center, 2004). There are several things that law enforcement officers can do.
First, law enforcement officers need to know their objective before pursuing a potential informant (Education Development Center, 2004). The purpose of the interaction is essential in determining the type of questions that should or should not be asked. In other words, the officer must enter the situation with a targeted methodology. If the law enforcement officer does not have a plan in mind, then the informant could quickly lose confidence in the officers’ capability. In addition, it could also show that the officer does not consider the informant to be serious.
Second, the law enforcement officer should ask open-ended questions (Education Development Center, 2004). These types of questions are very valuable because the subject, or potential informant, is able to speak his or her mind. An example of an open ended question is, “what do you think about drugs?” Although this question is very basic, it is perfect for the initial development of an informant. It is an easy question, it does not challenge the informant, and it provides insight into the reasoning capacity and indirect reliability of the criminal informant (Education Development Center, 2004). Also, the law enforcement official could fact check the informant’s responses for accuracy. An informant that does not provide accurate information or appears to be emotionally unstable is not a reliable source of information. If the officer has any doubts, he or she should walk away.
Third, ask questions in a simple format (Education Development Center, 2004). This means that officers should avoid talking too quickly and should ask questions that are objective. In doing so, officers prevent criminal informants from feeling unworthy. A good follow-up question might be to ask for an example; this allows the informant to show his or her true value, and it could also provide the officer with an idea of the information the informant has to offer. It also helps the officer to convey a sense of true concern to the criminal informant.
Fourth, the law enforcement officer should ask the most important questions first (Education Development Center, 2004). Time with an informant is very crucial and meetings can end drastically. On the same token, officers should avoid asking the same question over and over again or pushing an informant. This could unnecessarily upset the informant and give cause for him or her to walk away. Similarly, moving onto the next question too quickly rushes the informant, which could result in a similar negative ending. Ultimately, the interview is a form of art; the officer must be able to read the informant to determine when it’s okay to push harder, which is generally after the officer-informant relationship has developed.
Fifth, it is important for the law enforcement officer to avoid making specific or unrealistic commitments (Education Development Center, 2004). If the subject’s motives stem from being in the hole, then the officer should be careful about promising a get out of jail free card. If the subject wants something in exchange for his or her information, then again the officer needs to exercise caution to follow all regulations. If the officer does provide the potential criminal informant with a material or immaterial item or service, respectively, the officer needs to keep a record of that for budget and tax purposes (Education Development Center, 2004). In many cases, officers lose control of or lose contact with their criminal informants because they made unreasonable promises (Education Development Center, 2004). This has detrimental consequences because it can harm the officer’s reputation, which makes future informant interactions more difficult.
These key points of interviewing are essential in obtaining a positive result from an informant. They help officers to remain professional in their interactions. To avoid any hint of wrongdoing, officers should always record their interactions with informants (Education Development Center, 2004). This allows the officer and his or her team to evaluate the informant’s answers at a separate place and time. All of these steps are valuable in improving the quality of the relationship with a criminal informant.
There are a variety of reasons why a criminal would want to become an informant. However, the motives can be generalized to two areas. First, the potential informant is in a lot of trouble and would like to find a way to minimize the consequences. This usually entails an individual that has been caught for a crime. Second, the potential informant wants to be compensated in some way. The compensation could be intangible, such as security, or tangible, such as money. If police officers are able to determine the potential informant’s motives, then the officer can develop an understanding of how to conduct the meeting. When it comes down to the interview, there are several ways an officer can increase the probability of turning a criminal into an informant. The basic ideas are to maintain the informant’s positive attitude and maintain a professional relationship.