Sarah Stillman has an excellent article on the use of confidential informants in drug cases in the United States this week in the New Yorker:
Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman’s. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained C.I.s provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.
“They can get us into the places we can’t go,” says Brian Sallee, a police officer who is the president of B.B.S. Narcotics Enforcement Training and Consulting, a firm that instructs officers around the country in drug-bust procedures. “Without them, narcotics operations would practically cease to function.”
Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, occasionally as young as fourteen or fifteen. Some operate through the haze of addiction; others, like Hoffman, are enrolled in state-mandated treatment programs that prohibit their association with illegal drugs of any kind. Many have been given false assurances by the police, used without regard for their safety, and treated as disposable pawns of the criminal-justice system.
In Vancouver, Washington, Jeremy McLean was roped into being a confidential informant after selling a friend eight methadone pills. Fourteen undercover stings later, Jeremy would become the murder victim of a heroin trafficker he’d helped set up:
Mitchell McLean has come to see his son’s death as the result of an equally cynical and utilitarian calculation. “The cops, they get federal funding by the number of arrests they make—to get the money, you need the numbers,” he explained, alluding to, among other things, asset-forfeiture laws that allow police departments to keep a hefty portion of cash and other resources seized during drug busts. “It’s a commercial enterprise,” he went on, citing a view shared by many legal scholars and policy critics. “That’s how they pay for their vans, for their prosecutors—they get money from the war on drugs. They put zero dent in the supply. They just focus on small-town, small-time arrests.” He continued, “I understand using C.I.s to get information on who is a mid-level dealer, or to go after the big guys. That’s the information that I, as a taxpayer, would love to see them do—cases that have some significance. I still remember the big busts from the eighties and nineties, where they’d nail a heroin kingpin.”