If you are a police officer, there is no doubt sometime in your career you will work with a confidential informant. Whether you’re trying to crack a difficult case, gain key evidence in a conspiracy investigation or trying to learn about criminal activity before it happens, usually you will need to cultivate relationships with confidential criminal informants. Unfortunately, most informants are pretty nefarious characters, and trying to pry loose details about criminal activity can become a game of cat and mouse.
While some confidential informants are law-abiding citizens, often the informants with the best information are hardened criminals. Entering into and maintaining relationships with these people entails quite a bit of risk for officers and agencies.
Law enforcement officers and their agencies must wade through a confusing morass of payments, promises, information gathering, information vetting, protecting informant identities – all while trying to stay this side of the gray line of legality. Unfortunately, most agencies lack sophisticated systems for managing confidential informants, and they rely on rudimentary spreadsheets and notes on scraps of paper locked away in file cabinets.
Yes, unbelievably in the 21st century, many agencies still manage the process like law enforcement did almost 100 years ago in the Al Capone era. This archaic way of managing informants is not because technology doesn’t exist to modernize the process; it is because officers are trying to protect their informants’ identities from being divulged. Most believe this is relatively easy to control using paper-based systems. There seems to be this fear that if informant data is entered into a modern computerized database, it will be exposed, which might result in a compromise of the source and could prove potentially deadly to the informant.
However, the “scraps of paper” approach isn’t the best security model, it doesn’t facilitate connecting the dots on larger criminal investigations, and it has and will continue to subject the agency to significant risk. The news archives are littered with examples of informant management gone awry due to inappropriate engagement with informants – cops going to jail, careers ruined, agencies sued, millions of dollars paid for settlements as a result of acts committed by the informant while under the control of the agency.
What’s missing is an end-to-end informant management approach that guides agencies, reduces risk, protects informant identities, and helps facilitate search capability so intelligence can be analyzed and used as a better crime-fighting tool. A computer-based informant management system can help address almost all these needs.
There is a lot of value to agencies in this comprehensive approach to managing the “lifecycle” of informants. Beyond the crime fighting value, this approach will help keep agencies out of trouble.