Death under cover 

The danger of rats.

click to enlarge 01coverside_image1.jpg

At a particularly dismal moment in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” a disgusted undercover cop mutters, “It’s a nation of rats.”

Not quite. But the film and the recent flap in the Northeast over t-shirts that demand “Stop Snitchin’ ” are calling attention to a part of the legal system that critics say has gotten out of control.

While it’s impossible to get accurate counts due to the inherent secrecy of the practice, moderate estimates place the number of informants working for police agencies in the U.S. in the hundreds of thousands.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court OK’d the use of confidential informants 50 years ago, the practice has become a primary tool of the so-called war on drugs. As one court noted:

“Without informants, law enforcement authorities would be unable to penetrate and destroy organized crime syndicates, drug trafficking cartels, bank frauds, telephone solicitation scams, public corruption, terrorist gangs, money launderers, espionage rings, and the likes.”

Critics counter that the practice has become a dangerous public policy, compromising the integrity of police work, endangering both informants and innocents, eroding confidence in the rule of law enforcement, and often producing bad information.

The Little Rock Police Department and the Pulaski County sheriff’s office would not disclose the number of informants in their files.

The North Little Rock Police Department said it currently has 51 informants working with its narcotics unit. The Maumelle Police Department reported having 18 confidential informants, 10 males and eight females, though four of those have been “disqualified.”

No statewide figures are kept. Keith Rutledge, the state drug director, said that if regional drug task forces are using informants, it is done — and paid for — “at the local level.”

The way informants are handled varies widely, and that, too, is shrouded in secrecy. All four of the police agencies mentioned above stress that they make no promises to arrestees that the penalties they face will be reduced in exchange for cooperation.

All four reported, however, that if that person agrees to cooperate, information about his or her helpfulness may be conveyed to the prosecuting attorney. This takes the form of letters or recommendations that are also confidential. An informant has to trust the police.

“We tell you what you’re charged with and give you a phone number to call,” said Sgt. Robert Mourot, who heads the Street Narcotics Unit for the Little Rock police. “Once you bond out of jail, you can call us.

“If you ask, ‘What are you going to do for me?’ we say, ‘What are you going to do for yourself? You got yourself into this spot. It’s up to you to get yourself out of it.’ ”

Mourot said that if a person opts to become an informant, there are no guarantees. “All we can do,” he said, “is document what they did.”

Police in North Little Rock, Maumelle and at the sheriff’s office said they followed similar policies. What happens at the prosecutor’s office is similarly opaque.

Critics of the expanded use of confidential informants see the interface between police and prosecutors as a kind of legal black hole, in which discretion with regard to using law-breakers meets discretion with regard to charging them.



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