Thursday, March 01, 2012

Police informant use contributes to tolerating crimes, solving them, and testing community loyalties

Via Alexandra Natapoff's Snitching blog, I ran across several items on the subject of confidential informants (aka, "snitches") that may interest Grits readers.

First, out of Boston, a TV news reporter raises a question that could be asked anywhere in the country: Whether confidential informants are gaming the system, "continuing to commit crimes while exerting too much control over government investigations." "'There is almost no crime that a criminal informant cannot work their way out of,' Natapoff told FOX Undercover. 'Terrorism. Drug dealing. Murder. Child pornography. Nothing is off-limits. And because of that we send a terrible message in our criminal justice system that every crime is negotiable.'"

On the flip side of that critique, Natapoff points to a story from the San Antonio Express News that I'd missed back in January detailing court testimony from a long-time DEA informant who worked infiltrating the Zetas organized crime gang on both sides of the river, including in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. Natapoff notes the account is "unusual in part because of the generally secretive nature of informant use, but also more concretely because trials are infrequent and therefore informants rarely testify. On the extent to which informant/cartel members have become central to U.S. law enforcement in Mexico, see this previous post: NYT: Numerous Mexican drug informants benefit U.S. law enforcement."

Finally, Natapoff points to a law review article which aims to articulate "a different understanding" of the Stop Snitching phenomenon, "arguing that poor, black community members' refusal to cooperate with police investigations should be viewed as neither ethically condemnable nor inexplicable, but rather as a natural extension of the innate human aspiration to be loyal. It does so by situating Stop Snitching within the existing literature on loyalty and asserting that the refusal to cooperate with police represents a privileging of community loyalty over loyalty to the state. Throughout the various strata of contemporary society, such privileging of the familiar over the remote is common, and Stop Snitching is neither puzzling nor reprehensible when viewed as a manifestation of this manner of prioritization." (Grits has explored some of these same themes in the past.)

Fascinating stuff. Grits hasn't focused as much in recent years on the subject of informants, but I continue to believe, with Natapoff, that it's a lynchpin issue around which a lot of problematic police practices revolve. Informants are critical for law enforcement - particularly when investigating targets like insular Mexican drug cartels - yet at the same time they represent one of law enforcement's greatest points of vulnerability for corruption and abuse of power. If you haven't read Natapoff's book on snitching and have any interest in the subject, professional or otherwise, I couldn't recommend it and her work more highly.


Prison Doc said...

Wow. What a timely topic...the several small towns in West Texas and the Hill Country with which I'm familiar seem to have an informant--police--prosecutor axis which is a real growth industry to keep small-time drug crimes going. It definitely deserves close scrutiny.

Dante said...

I have always believed that the "Blue Wall of Silence" is the exact same thing as "Stop Snitching".

Notice that the police always want to attack/criminalize those who advocate "Stop Snitching", while they sanctimoneously sniff at the suggestion that they are guilty of the same thing.

Hypocrisy, thy name is Law Enforcement.

Protect & Serve (Themselves!)

Jim Turner said...

Great post. I've been reading a book by Bruce Schneier, a security researcher, writer, and blogger called Liars and Outliers. It covers this problem from a slightly different angle. A short extract,
gives the basic sense of how he sees this problem.

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Check out and there message board