First, at a Texas Public Policy Foundation event on Thursday, state Sen. John Whitmire told a story I've heard him relate before about the time in the '90s when he and his now-ex wife were robbed at gunpoint in their garage. An armed "crackhead" stole his money clip and wallet, then took off, but Whitmire added an tidbit I hadn't heard him mention before: The robbers were captured weeks later, he said, because one of the five people in the car turned out to be a police snitch! (Go here to listen to Whitmire's talk at the TPPF event.)
I don't know the particulars, but let's assume for a moment that person had been in trouble with the law, and authorities put him back out on the street to gather information instead of prosecuting, which is the usual method for turning a snitch. Then that person turns around and participates in armed robberies?
I'm sure there was a lot of internal pressure to solve this high-profile case, but do you suppose the informant told them about all the other crimes committed that night (or other nights) by the same crew, or the full extent of his own culpability? Probably not.
We learned last year that the FBI sometimes tolerates "serious violent crimes" by their informants without violating internal policies. One wonders whether HPD employs a similarly lenient policy, given this anecdote?
Another, much more recent case in Houston shows police using informants in a more controlled environment: A sting setting up a drug dealing police officer. Reported the Houston Chronicle ("Prosecutor: Officer got drug money from informant," Jan. 11):
This example of police informant use poses fewer problems to me than does Sen. Whitimire's snitch. For starters, the informant was aimed at a specific investigative target - Officer Tennarse - not just riding around town with a bunch of stick up artists participating in armed robberies.
Houston police officer Traci Michelle Tennarse and her boyfriend used $17,000 they got from a police informant to buy 50 pounds of marijuana, assistant Harris County District Attorney Anna Emmons said Friday
Tennarse was arrested Wednesday after she carried the marijuana to the second floor of an East Freeway motel and handed it to the informant, Emmons said.
The arrest followed an investigation that dates back to October, but Emmons declined to say Friday whether officials believe Tennarse and boyfriend Clarence Davis, 48, have been trafficking in marijuana for a long time. ...
"She took the buy money from the confidential informant and gave it to Clarence Davis," Emmons said.
Davis left home with the money and is believed to have retrieved the marijuana soon after, Emmons said. Tennarse was arrested at the motel shortly before 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Emmons' office, HPD's internal affairs division and HPD narcotics investigators were involved in the sting operation.
Tennarse was sworn in as a police officer in January 2006. She worked at a desk job that involved checking fingerprint records of people processed through the city jail, police said.
Also, the $17,000 in buy money means they were going after some pretty big fish; I've been a lot more critical of using informants to generate large numbers of low-level busts. Plus, with that much buy money involved, I'm sure the informant's actions were monitored a lot more closely than the snitch in Sen. Whitmire's case.
The prosecution of Sen. Whitmire's assailants shows how there may be problems with employing snitches, even when the tactic "works." But Tennarse's arrest shows why calls to "stop snitching" go too far. In that case, were the philosophy implemented, it would have prevented making a serious police corruption case, and even the "stop snitching" crowd doesn't like dirty cops.