Naturally, despite bad informant cases all over the country, it took a major case of a mendacious informant in NYC proper for the Grey Lady to pay closer attention to the subject, which it does today in an overview of problems created by police reliance on snitches ("Officers' arrests puts spotlight on police use of informants," Jan. 28):
The issue of confidential informants was thrust into the spotlight last week by news that four narcotics officers in Brooklyn had been arrested, in a case that involves accusations of paying informants with drugs seized from dealers the informants had pointed them to.
The officers are not suspected of making any illegal profit, and one law enforcement official has said police officers’ trading of drugs for information in the pursuit of arrests could be described as “noble-cause corruption.” The practice would, however, shatter police policy, break the law and, in the view of police commanders and prosecutors, erode the integrity of officers.
The scandal has led the Brooklyn district attorney’s office to seek the dismissal of about 150 drug cases, with hundreds more under review. Besides the arrests — of a sergeant, a detective and two officers in the Brooklyn South narcotics bureau — six additional officers were suspended and several others were placed on modified or desk duty, barred from doing enforcement work. Four supervisors were transferred and a new commander was assigned to the Police Department’s Narcotics Division.
Confidential sources are generally recruited and managed in secret, and their numbers are hard to determine in large police departments like New York’s.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to its budget request for 2008, maintains more than 15,000 secret informants; the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to an internal audit from 2005, has about 4,000 at a time on its payroll.
Texas recently saw our own case of a police officer trading drugs to a snitch for information, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remarkably ruled that the practice did not amount to "evidence tampering" under Texas law. I'll bet that's not the result in New York.
I was particularly interested in the statistics on paid DEA and FBI informants. State and local agencies also maintain their own stables of informants, typically with less regulation, even than federal agents, who themselves by policy sometimes knowingly tolerate violent crimes by informants in the field.
Just as disturbing, and directly relevant to the Brooklyn case, in the recent national wave of exonerations based on DNA evidence, false testimony by informants has been the second leading cause of wrongful convictions. This dark underbelly of law enforcement has long deserved greater scrutiny, and maybe we're reaching a critical mass of public attention on the topic from cases like this to push the issue to the fore.
H/t: Thinking Outside the Cage
MORE: From Simple Justice and the ACLU Blog.