Saturday, August 13, 2005

Today's LA TIMES ran a story about a policy change regarding use of informants by LAPD uniformed cops. The story is a little cloudy on the facts. Apparently the LAPD asked the federal monitor Michael Cherkasky for permission to let uniformed gang cops develop informants. The DOJ, Cherkasky and US District Court Judge Gary Feess gave the LAPD permission to do so.

What's not mentioned in the article is whether this permission slip will allow uniformed gang cops to pay CIs for information. The truth is, with or without permision from authorities, uniformed gang cops have never stopped using street informants. It's part of what they do as gang cops. Developing gang intelligence would be next to impossible without informants.

It's no big secret that within hours after a gang-related shooting or a homicide, gang cops usually get strong leads on the shooter(s) and the motive from contact with informants. The key to a filing is whether informants have first-hand knowledge of the incident or whether it's hearsay and thus inadmissible in court. The other obstacle is whether the informant is willing to come forward and testify in court in a case where he or she has first-hand knowledge of the crime.

The LAT article mentions that the ACLU has concerns about this "new" CI policy. The fear is that street informants or cops could put a case on a innocent party out of personal retribution or internal gang squabble. This is a genuine concern. I just witnessed a case where a CI made up a story out of whole cloth and basically framed a defendant in a murder case. It turns out the defendant was guilty anyway and eventually copped a plea in exchange for a reduced sentence. But the fact remains that the CI was lying and will probably be charged with perjury. So the danger is there. You can see where the possibility exists of an innocent guy being set up and framed not necessarily by police, but by his own crimies.

We know how slick some players can get. It's not out of the realm of possibility that three of four criminals conspire to kill somebody, agree to finger some guy they want out of the picture to clean up their books and conspire to put the case on him.

The use of CIs can cut both ways. It can make huge cases like the Aguirre and Detevis federal RICO cases but it can also take cases completely off the rails and make LE look like fools and maybe send innocent defendants to jail. Street cops may not like it, but the solution is to impose rigid guidelines, provide close supervision and evaluate the validity of information at every step of the process right up to a DA's filing. We've seen first-hand how the best intentioned investigations conducted by straight-arrow, ethical cops can go completely sideways based on believable but ultimately bad information. It's rare, or course, but all it takes is one bad case to put the entire issue back on shelf and remove a potentially valuable tool of law enforcement. The Perez case was a once in a lifetime incident and look what it do to the city. We're still paying for it.