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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
Crime Investigation Work
This paper examines recent trends in the use of informants by the law enforcement agencies in crime investigation work. The rise of the terrorism and the demand for an increased degree of efficiency in the delivery of policing services is identified as an important influence upon the apparent increased willingness of police policy makers to countenance the use of informants (Klockers, 2005). Data is presented which suggests that informants are an excellent and cost-effective resource of information for the police, but it is argued that in the long-term, an over-reliance upon informants by the law enforcement agencies may prove detrimental to the legitimacy of the organizations responsible for the safety of citizens and to protect them from terrorism (Castells, 2004).
All organizations that are involved in the production of social control are to some extent dependent upon information from those connected to the activities over which control is being sought. The role of the ‘informant’ has traditionally been seen as an adjunct to the enforcement of criminal law, but more recently research has demonstrated that similar sources of information are of manifest importance in the functioning of regulatory and compliance based legal frameworks (Hutter, 2000). Whether it is labeled as ‘informing’ or ‘whistle blowing’, the provision of inside knowledge to external authorities is а central component in determining the effectiveness of the relevant control agency. To be routinely knowledgeable about breaches of rules, regulations and laws, one needs to be in close contact with those who are engaged in such activities.
This paper focuses upon an examination of recent developments in the role of police informants in crime investigation work. In particular it looks at the contributions made by those individuals who provide information to the police on more than one occasion and are themselves either engaged in criminal activity, or have а close affinity with the criminal milieu (Castells, 2004).
While informants have always influenced law enforcement agencies efforts in the area of crime control, they are increasingly coming to be seen as а key resource in police crime investigation strategies. In а recent publication The Audit Commission (2000) declared that informants are ‘the lifeblood of CIA’ and have vociferously advocated an increased use of them in the law enforcement agencies response to crime.(Giddens, 2004) In this paper it is argued, that the recent developments in respect of an increased emphasis upon the use of informants, needs to be understood against а backdrop of wider social, economic and political trends. Chief amongst which is the rise of the ‘new managerial state’ (Clarke et al., 2004).
As will be demonstrated, the use of informants facilitates а cost-effective response to crime and in this age of increased financial restraints on public sector spending, questions of efficiency are of central importance to the delivery of law enforcement services. However, the fact that informants enable а cost-effective response, is not necessarily commensurate with saying either that informants can or ought to be used more regularly by the law enforcement agencies.
The ‘value’ of an informant to the law enforcement agencies is founded upon the fact that they are possessors of ‘insider knowledge’. This knowledge is often acquired through their own participation in crime or their close affinity with those who engage in such activities. For many people, this generates а profound sense of moral ambiguity in relation to the law enforcement agencies use of informants. After all, as the state institution charged with providing the principal formal social response to infractions of the moral and legal codes, the law enforcement agencies are manifestly involved in the symbolic construction, integration and maintenance of а number of core social values (Forsell, 1999).
This paper seeks to contribute to the debate in this area, particularly in the light of recent policy initiatives from the upper echelons of the police service, where substantive recommendations have been made to enhance and promote the use of informants in all areas of crime investigation work. Attention is given to the recent developments in the management procedures relating to informants, as well as some of the merits and
The Definitional Problem
People can possess any number of reasons as to why they might wish to pass information to the authorities about the (possibly) criminal, unethical or deviant activities of others. The source of the motivation to provide such information can be either internal or external to the particular individual concerned. Some choose to volunteer information to the authorities out of а sense of civic duty, others do so as an act of revenge against someone they feel has wronged them. For some people in certain situations, their co-operation may be motivated by political ideology. In other instances the law enforcement organization may provide an external pecuniary or non-pecuniary incentive to an individual, in an effort to try and persuade them to act as а conduit for the communication of information in which they are interested (Forsell, 1999).
The fact that there are а varied range of motivations has made the task of constructing а complete and coherent definition of what constitutes informing complex. There have been various attempts within the academic literature to construct such definitions.(Ericson and Haggerty, 2000) One of the more sophisticated models has been provided by Greer (2001), who has adopted а resolutely sociological approach to the problem.
Greer develops а four-fold classification of informant types, based upon what he sees as two central variables that structure the relationship between the law enforcement agencies and an informant (Weatheritt, 2002). These variables are the links between the informant and the people about which he/she is informing and the relationship with the policing agency concerned. The two variables can thus be analyzed in terms of whether the informant is an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ and whether they are а ‘single event informant’ or а ‘multiple event informant’. Through the application of this system, Greer develops the following classifications: ‘The Casual Observer’ who is an outside single event informant; ‘The Snoop’ who is an outside multiple event informant; ‘The One Off Accomplice Witness’ who is а single event insider; and ‘The Informer/Agent Provocateur/Supergrass’ who is the inside multiple event informant. In the discussion that follows, while attention is paid to all of these roles, in particular it focuses upon the relationship between the law enforcement agencies and that of the inside multiple event informer. As this is where the moral questions identified previously are most pronounced (Weatheritt, 2002).
Under the police definition а distinction was however made between informants and contacts. A contact is а person, who as а result of their occupational position (i.e. Department of Social Security investigator; teacher), is in а position to supply information which may be of relevance to the law enforcement agencies. This differentiation may reflect an implied moral distinction within the socially constructed police view of social reality, between the social identity of informants and contacts.(Reiner, 1992) The distinction that is made in this respect has many similarities to that established by Ericson (2000) in his study of Canadian detectives, where the classifications of organizational and individual informants were employed. In subsequent work (Ericson and Haggerty, 2000) it has been argued that the role of the contact is an increasingly important source of information for the law enforcement agencies, operating through institutionally maintained, mutually beneficial networks between policing agencies and other public and private organizations. There is also а suggestion that information sharing, at both an intra-organizational and inter-organizational level, is becoming one of the defining characteristics of law enforcement agencies work in the ‘information age'(Ericson and Haggerty, 2000).
There is though, а second issue concerning the definition of the informant role that relates to the construction of а particular social identity of the informant, within а broader social context. For some groups in society, the label of ‘police informant’ has serious perjorative connotations with а distinct social stigma attached to it. There is often а very real threat of violent retribution or communal ‘ostracization’ for the individual who is identified as an informant. However, this moral approbation is not uniformly distributed throughout all sections of society. It is dependent upon the enacted environment in which the information provider lives and the perceived seriousness of the in Client in question.(Giddens, 2004) Fielding’s (2001) analysis has shown that one of the instrumental motivations for the police service’s implementation of community policing strategies, was to try to obtain better access to information held by members of the public about crime. Despite such efforts, Fielding’s work suggests that only а small number of people regularly act as an information source for the law enforcement agencies (Forsell, 1999).
By way of an example of these types of problems, many of the law enforcement agencies officers in my study commented that when they were carrying out enquiries in relation to а murder, or some other form of serious crime, they felt it was more likely that they would receive а high degree of co-operation from at least some sections of the community, where in less serious cases any such assistance could not be expected. The degree of social censure that exists in relation to ‘police informants’ may then, be stronger in relation to those individuals who regularly act as information sources for the law enforcement agencies for less serious types of crime. Although, as with many instances of ‘social reaction’, the strength and sustainability of any forms of vilification are to а large extent а product of the conditions of the social context concerned (Castells, 2004).
The Role of Informants in Law Enforcement
The employment of persons by the state, to infiltrate political organizations, which are perceived as threatening to the security of the established modes of social organization, has а long and disreputable history. This is attested to in the popular adage that espionage constitutes ‘the world’s second oldest profession’.(Giddens, 2004) In terms of the provision of а law enforcement agencies response to criminal behaviors, the informant is seen as making an important contribution to the prevention and detection of crime, Experience demonstrates that the co-operation of individuals who can readily furnish additional information is essential if law enforcement is to discharge its obligations… (J. Edgar Hoover, 1955)(Reiner, 1992)
These sentiments are echoed in а policy document on informants in the force studied, which in its opening sentence states Informants are and always have been an essential source of police intelligence (Fijnaut, 2001).
And in а subsequent paragraph it says that:
“Provided that the way in which informants are dealt with is properly controlled then their use is encouraged and often essential when seeking to identify and arrest those committing serious crime”. (Reiner, 1992)
The need to try and obtain information about the activities of criminals remains one of the key objectives of modern policing strategies (Ericson, 2000; Hobbs, 1988). Indeed, the essential function of the police crime investigation function can reasonably be defined as an attempt to collect sufficient information to support successful criminal prosecutions. In undertaking such tasks, the law enforcement agencies are confronted with an effective paradox which serves to curtail their potential effectiveness in this area. This is that very few law-abiding citizens are in possession of detailed information about the activities of criminals (Weatheritt, 2002).
Those individuals who do possess such information are the same individuals who often have the least incentive to provide it to the law enforcement agencies. The establishment of lines of communication about these groups through individual informants, is one way the law enforcement agencies can obtain relevant knowledge about criminal activity. The ability of the law enforcement agencies ‘to know about crime’, is therefore structured by the channels of communication between the police organization and the public, but as will be shown in the next section, these relationships are themselves, structured by economic concerns (Fijnaut, 2001).
Contrary to the popular image of the law enforcement agencies officer as а ‘crime-fighter’ sui generis, social research has demonstrated that law enforcement agencies work is more concerned with the emergency maintenance of social order (Bittner, 2001; Reiner, 1992). It has been further demonstrated that when the law enforcement agencies do involve themselves in crime-fighting duties, the principal factors determining whether or not the crime will be solved is the amount and quality of information provided by members of the public, as victims, witnesses or informants. Anything approaching orthodox conceptions of ‘traditional’ detective work is responsible for only between 20-25% of all crime clearances (Greenwood et al., 1977; Reiner, 1992). The importance of informants in the policing of ‘the crimes of clandestine markets’ (Sheptycki, 1998), such as narcotics and prostitution has long been recognised (Skolnick, 1966; Manning, 1980; Collison, 2001), but as will be discussed, they are also significant for the investigation of other types of offences (Fijnaut, 2001).
As а greater emphasis upon the use of informants has emerged, so police officers have been encouraged to be aware of the potential for developing information-trading relationships with the people whom they come into contact. In the force in which this study was conducted, in а pamphlet issued to all officers entitled ‘A Simple Guide to Handling Informants’ this was emphasised, The main thing to remember is that every person you deal with, and in particular offenders, should be viewed as а potential informant (Castells, 2004).
With the increased emphasis on the importance of informants in law enforcement agencies work, all officers both uniform and detectives are being encouraged to try and recruit informants. However, due to the practical demands of recruiting and cultivating an informant, most (but not all) of the ‘multiple event’ informants are ‘run’ by detectives (Giddens, 2004).
People have а range of different motivations for passing information to the police, Collison’s (2001) study of the policing of drug markets found that the majority of informants were motivated to some degree by revenge. (Hubbs, 2000) There were а range of methods by which officers would try and secure the co-operation of an individual. The precise methods that were employed were selected from an array of tactics according to the officer’s assessments of the individual concerned and what they believed would be the most effective approach. Ericson (2000) captures this process nicely when he discusses that one of the chief skills of а detective is to be adept at creating ‘а shared currency of exchange’ with potential informants, It was the detective’s task to ascertain some other matter in which the potential informant had а stake and to use this to encourage co-operation. Detectives realized that informants did not typically come forward to assist the police because they were civic-minded. Rather, informants were usually motivated by other agenda with the law enforcement agencies that they felt could be dealt with by co-operating in matters the detectives were concerned with at that moment. The detective’s task was to read these motives and to use them. (Ericson, 2000: 117)
Allied to the changes that have taken place amongst the higher echelons of the police service, there have been accompanying reforms of the internal police regulatory mechanisms relating to the use of informants. (Ericson and Haggerty, 2000) In summary, the changes that have been introduced represent an increasing degree of formal control over the use of informant provided information and the relationship between police officers and their informants. As а whole the process of change could be said to represent, the ‘professionalization’ of the informant role(Morgan, 2000).
In the force studied, there had been established а clear bureaucratic system for managing informants. The principal division of police labor was split between the roles of ‘the Handler’, ‘the Controller’, ‘the Divisional Crime Manager’, and ‘the Informant Registrar’. The Handler is the officer who has direct contact with the informant. Their role can be supplemented by the appointment of а ‘Co-Handler’ who assists in the direct contacts with the informant. The establishment of this second role is significant because it is indicative of one of the crucial debates that has taken place within the police service concerning the ‘ownership’ of informants (Castells, 2004).
Prior to the program of modernization, the use and management of informants was very much а reflection of the individualistic and entrepreneurial emphasis that shaped the structure of detective work (see Hobbs, 1988). Informants were а personal resource, attached to individual officers and their identity was jealously guarded. An experienced detective described the prevalent attitudes when he had first entered CIA twenty years ago, they were your ‘snout’ and if they were any good then you were stupid if you didn’t keep them in your corner. In those days having а good snout could almost make or break your career in CIA (Fijnaut, 2001).
There has been а concerted effort within the senior ranks of the police service, to try and move away from this individualistic ethos, towards а more systematic organization of detective work. This has been made concrete in some of the changes that have been introduced in the system for managing informants. The ACPO ranks have been particularly keen to make informants а resource for the whole police service rather than individual officers (Fijnaut, 2001).
The actions of Handlers are now directly supervised by а Controller, who is an officer of at least the rank of Detective Inspector. The Controller is the operational supervisor who is responsible for authorizing meetings between the Handler and Informant and the general control of the relationship between the two. The next link in the chain of command is the Divisional Crime Manager who has overall responsibility for administrative aspects of the ‘running’ of all informants in а particular area. They are also responsible for authorizing payments to informants in relation to the information they provide.
The Detective Superintendent (Intelligence) is based at force Headquarters with functional responsibility for the management and use of all the informants in the police jurisdiction and is responsible for maintaining а register of informants. These local registers are collated by The National Criminal Intelligence Service, which maintains а national list of all registered police informants in the country. The intention being to be able to co-ordinate the use of informants in different parts of the country when the need arises.
One of the principal aims in introducing these bureaucratic control structures was to encourage а more systematic use of informant provided information and to ensure that it is the police service that are getting the most out of the transactions with informants. Under the old system of informant management, which relied heavily upon the personalities and capacities of the individual handler? There was а sense amongst many senior officers that the law enforcement agencies were open to being manipulated by their informants. The new system is intended to try and ensure that it is the law enforcement agencies who are directing negotiations with informants and not the other way around (Fijnaut, 2001).
Perhaps one of the most significant developments that has taken place in respect of the direction and management of police informants has been the introduction of the concept of ‘tasking’. Essentially ‘tasking’ involves the proactive use of informants to discover information about targeted suspects and their activities. Rather than relying on informants bringing information to the police, the handlers are now sending their informants out with instructions to find out about specific people and crimes. This is not а totally original police practice, but what is significant is that it has been formally established as а recognized use of informants by the police service. That this has taken place is а reflection of the greater role that informants are expected to play in modern crime investigation strategies (Fijnaut, 2001).
In summary, the modernization of the systems for managing police informants had four principal aims. Firstly, the intention was to improve the overall quality of information received from informants and to use it in а more systematic manner. A second aim was to regulate the conduct of police officers and to try and decrease the opportunities available within the handler-informant relationship for police malfeasance and corruption. Linked to this, was а need to try and protect officers from spurious allegations made by informants about police conduct. Finally and possibly most importantly there was а perceived need to try and regulate the activities of the informants themselves. There have been perennial and constant concerns about the fact that many informants are themselves involved in criminal activities and that if not controlled, they are structured within their relationships with the police in such а way as to make significant illicit gains. It was also recognized that measures were needed to stop informants from acting as agent provocateurs.
Using Informant Information
The use of information by the police is obviously contingent upon the quality and relevance of that which is provided. When officers have а ‘meet’ with an informant they are required to submit а report via the Controller to the Divisional Crime Manager, detailing the circumstances of the meeting and what they were told. As part of this report, the Handler is expected to make an evaluation of the reliability of the information source and the accuracy of the actual information (Hubbs, 2000). However, there are problems in trying to make an evaluation of an individual who is, by the very nature of the role in which they are engaged, skilled in the arts of deceit and concealment.(Giddens, 2004)
The data suggests there are several main uses of informants. An informant could be used to establish the identity of а suspect or they could also be used to suggest possible suspects for а crime. Informants would also be regularly used to collect background information about suspects and interesting information about а crime, which could be used to direct subsequent lines of enquiry. This was particularly the case for the more serious crimes studied in the fieldwork. On murder investigations where а suspect was not rapidly identified by the enquiry team, one of the early instructions that was issued by the Senior Investigating Officer was that all informant handlers should be instructed to contact their informants in order to see if they could provide any relevant knowledge. In terms of more proactive work, which was most often concerned with drug dealing or ‘vice’ crimes, informant’s information was used as а means of selecting which individuals should be targeted for surveillance operations. Other uses of informants included tracing stolen property and for locating weapons and evidence relating to particular offences.
In terms of the integration of informants within the investigative process, broadly speaking it is true to say that the police tended to use them as ‘intelligence sources’ rather than ‘evidence sources’ in the courts. A similar trend was found by Ericson (2000), except where informants supplied stolen property; their evidence was generally of the type used by detectives to justify an arrest for the purposes of seeking а suspect confession and other evidence. (Ericson, 2000: 129)
Generally, such intelligence was used as а means of directing lines of enquiry rather than establishing substantive evidential links.
This is а reflection of the problems that informants have been found to pose in the courts, in terms of the validity and reliability of their evidence. There is also the question of how the individual is expected to perform under cross-examination, which is an issue separate from the veracity of their evidence. Additionally, one of the chief concerns of the police has been and continues to be, the necessity of protecting the anonymity of their informants. This has in the past caused legal difficulties and indeed it has been alleged that the law enforcement agencies have several occasions, that it is in their long-term interest to lose specific prosecutions rather than be forced to compromise the identity of а police informant (Audit Commission, 2000). It should be remembered throughout this discussion, that the consequences for а person who is publicly identified as а ‘grass’ can be serious. (Giddens, 2004)
Payment of Informants
The fact that informants provide information in exchange for some form of reward, rather than because they feel impelled to do so out of а sense of civic duty, renders the whole issue of what informants receive as ‘payment’ somewhat troubling. Questions about the ethical value of such practices are heightened by а general suspicion that many of those who inform are themselves involved in illegal activities, and that they are effectively being licensed by the police to continue, so long as they supply information about the criminal activities of others. Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the police-informant transaction, is where monetary payments are being made. Under such arrangements knowledge about crime has been ‘commodified’, it is something to be legitimately bought and sold and this is troubling within the context of the law enforcement agencies role in society.
The financial recompense of informants is only one method used by the police to ‘pay’ them for their services. Indeed, the majority of exchanges that are made do not involve money. However, because of the fact that this form of transaction involves money ‘changing hands’, there are detailed records maintained by the police for auditing purposes. An examination of these records provides an indication of the ‘value’ that is attached to criminal knowledge.
The amount of money that is paid to an informant is determined according to the seriousness of the crime and the adjudged ‘value’ of the information. In the force in the study, guidelines had been established for the appropriate levels of payment. The amounts to be paid were organized in sliding scales according to the relative seriousness of the crime and the detail and accuracy of the information that was provided. In the pamphlet ‘A Simple Guide to Handling Informants’ issued to officers, handlers are encouraged to tell their informants that the basic principles at work are that ‘points make prizes’. The more detailed and accurate the information that they can provide is, the higher the reward money that they are likely to be paid. From the point of view of the police, the less the amount of additional resources that they have to make available for the investigation, the more ‘valuable’ the information.
As has been suggested previously, informants can have а range of non-pecuniary motives for passing information to the law enforcement agencies; it is the job of the officer handling the informant to exploit these motives to accrue maximum benefit for the police.
Moral Conundrums and Practical Problems
The use of informants rises for the police and society in general, а number of complex moral and practical issues. There seems to be something that is almost antithetical to our general moral standards that someone should profit by the abrogation of their civic responsibilities.
This is supplemented by legal problems relating to the fact that for evidence to be accepted as valid and reliable, there is а general expectation that it should be both voluntarily and freely given. The co-operation of an informant, on the other hand, is dependent upon the provision of sufficient incentives to secure their involvement.
The institutions involved in regulatory and enforcement activities are largely ‘information dependent’ (Manning, 1977), and as such there is something of а ‘Faustian pact’ struck between them and their informants. At the heart of which lies the ‘Sartrean’ moral dilemma: ‘can bad means justify а good end?’ The significance of this conundrum to the enforcement of law has been drawn out by Klockars (2005a) in his discussion of ‘The Dirty Harry’ problem. The attempts at increased control and regulation that have been detailed in this paper, show that for the law enforcement agencies, the use of informants is not an either/or debate. Informants are seen as an important element in efficient and effective crime investigation work and as such, the problem of their use is more to do with when should they be used and to what ends?
Kleinig (2001) raises а number of important ethical considerations in relation to the appropriate balance that can be struck between the need to prevent moral and physical harms and other ethical concerns, (informants) may be viewed in an excessively instrumental manner, their weaknesses exploited and their continuing illegal activities overlooked. The fact that they are sometimes victims of ‘institutionalized blackmail’ can make it virtually impossible for an informant to leave his/her nether world. (Kleinig, 2001: 136)
The endorsement of state sponsored intrusion by private citizens on the behalf of state agencies, raises important questions about the duties and obligations of the state to maintain and promote abstract qualities such as ‘social trust’. In а society shaped by pluralistic value structures, an actuarial assessment of the costs and benefits of appropriate social control strategies is rendered essentially problematic.
Such abstract considerations are not the only problems, there are specific practical difficulties routinely encountered by officers ‘on the ground’ in their dealings with informants. Indeed in the long run, the practical problems involved in ‘running’ an informant may prove to be of more consequence than any moral concerns that citizens may have.
The drive emanating from ACPO and the Audit Commission has been to make policing more effective and efficient through an increasingly ‘intelligence led’ ethos. In particular, they have concentrated their attentions on the proactive identification of the small number of individuals who are responsible for а large number of all criminal offences. However, research in this area seems to suggest that this is considerably more difficult in p
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