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6 types of confidential sources for patrol officers

Confidential sources can be key to preventing and solving crimes; here are six types of confidential sources in law enforcement

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Proactive confidential source recruitment reveals information and perspectives unavailable through other means of investigation.


Every cop worth their salt knows the value of informants. Whether called “confidential human sources,” “assets” or some other colorful term, confidential informants are vital to preventing and solving crimes.

For our purposes, the term “source” will be used to describe a person who is not necessarily involved in crime but has access to information or a distinct vantage point that allows them to obtain useful intelligence. The term “informant” will refer to individuals who are facing criminal charges and are willing to cooperate for a reduction in sentence.

Police detectives, state investigators and federal agents receive training in informant management. This includes techniques for enlisting informants, determining their motivation, protecting their identities, remuneration and validating their information. Unfortunately, patrol officers are not typically trained to elicit intelligence even though they regularly have opportunities to recruit informants and sources.

After serving as a detective in a narcotics unit years ago, I returned to the patrol division. I quickly discovered my perspective had changed drastically. I recognized every complainant, witness and suspect as a potential source of information. When an officer adopts this mindset, their interactions change. Instead of cutting straight to the chase in the “just the facts ma’am” style, they learn to see the big picture and strive to create a network of reliable sources in their area of responsibility (AOR).

Since patrol officers typically do not have the time, resources or authorization to recruit confidential informants and conduct undercover operations, this article will discuss the recruitment of sources in the community.

In a previous article, I encouraged you to pinpoint locations that could be potential terrorist targets. In this article, I encourage you to pinpoint the locations in your AOR that are most likely to be a “scene of the crime” in the future. It could be the intersection that is known for drug sales, the wooded area where stolen cars are stripped and burned, the local “trap house” or the convenience store that is robbed on a regular basis.

Once those areas are identified, take a step back and make note of every residence, business and roadway with a view of that location. Now, make a plan to engage those residents, business owners and the folks who travel those roadways. Following are six key confidential sources for law enforcement operations.

1. Residents

Every neighborhood has a person who seemingly never sleeps and knows everything that happens on the street. They should be your source.

In January 2018, I worked on the case of Pedro Sanchez. Sanchez was arrested for burning a house he had been hired to rehabilitate. He was caught shortly after he set the fire as he attempted to flee the scene. A responding officer spoke with a woman who lived in the neighborhood. The woman, who had been sitting on her porch at 1:00 a.m., told police she heard a loud boom, “louder than a gunshot.” She told the reporting officer the suspect “popped out” a minute after that and walked past her home.[1] Sanchez was arrested and subsequently sentenced to 5 years in federal prison.

2. Regular Route Drivers

Bus drivers, cab drivers and Uber/Lyft drivers travel their routes regularly at all hours of the day and night. Why not give them your number and encourage them to call you when they see something out of the ordinary or transport someone who is suspicious? These folks hear conversations and observe behaviors that could be just the lead you need to solve a crime.

3. Sex Workers

Another group of individuals who are on the roadway at all hours is sex workers. Although you must use extreme caution when developing rapport with them, they can be great sources of intelligence. Sex workers are often involved in or work adjacent to the drug trade and may be affiliated with a variety of criminal associates.

One of my colleagues at ATF worked on a case involving Shaquana Brookins. In 2014, Brookins met a woman who began working for her in the commercial sex industry. The young lady was addicted to crack cocaine, and Brookins controlled her by exploiting her addiction. Brookins repeatedly beat her to cause her to engage in commercial sex and to punish her if she stole drugs or withheld money. On several occasions, the sex worker attempted to escape from Brookins but was forced by Brookins to return. U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard sentenced Brookins to 35 years in federal prison for sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion; conspiracy to manufacture and distribute crack cocaine; and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon.[2] Note: When contacting sex workers, treat them with respect. You may be the only one in their circle who does.

4. Former Crime Victims

Another great source of information: former crime victims. Typically, and understandably, victims may be disinclined to provide information shortly after being victimized. However, after some time has passed, they may be more willing to cooperate with law enforcement. In fact, they may feel empowered to do something to help others avoid victimization. You lose nothing by asking.

This also applies to associates and ex-spouses of known offenders. You lose nothing by approaching them discreetly and giving them the opportunity to join the team.

5. Retailers

As you evaluate your area of responsibility for future crime scenes, be sure to include retailers that sell products used to manufacture illicit drugs and explosives.

Hardware, pool supply and beauty supply stores meet this description. In 2016, suspicious Home Depot employees in Bridgeton, Mo., called police after Douglas Herr bought a 1¼-inch pipe and asked that it be cut into sections 7½ inches long and threaded for end caps. Police arrested him and obtained a search warrant for his hotel room. The search revealed “materials for constructing pipe bombs … including 25 pounds of gunpowder, 9 pipe end caps and fuse wire.”[3] There is no way to know how many lives were saved by these quick-thinking employees.

Many departments across the country use the Bomb-Making Materials Awareness Program (BMAP) to inform and instruct employees and community members about explosive precursor chemicals. BMAP conducts outreach, training and awareness with the private and public sector stakeholders, which increases awareness of those everyday products that terrorists, criminals and others can use to make a bomb or other dangerous explosive mixtures and/or device.[4]

6. Maintenance Workers

In the lodging sector, maintenance workers are an excellent source of information. Unlike law enforcement, they enter the apartments and hotel rooms rented by criminals with consent every day. It would be improper and illegal to task these workers with gathering intelligence and, thus, circumventing a search warrant. However, it is lawful and expedient to teach them to recognize tools, techniques and procedures related to criminal activity. Once armed with the knowledge you provide, maintenance workers can identify suspicious activity and may independently provide tips that may lead to an arrest.

While Douglas Herr used a hotel to manufacture explosives and improvised explosive devices, such activity happens in apartment complexes, too, where maintenance workers and service personnel can serve as valuable sources. Consider this case from Beaver Dam, Wis., that did not have a positive outcome. In 2019, Ben Morrow was killed due to an explosion in his apartment. Police found that Morrow had a quantity of Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP), a highly volatile compound that can be made using readily available materials. Investigators found additional bomb-making chemicals, timers, gunpowder and instructional materials regarding explosives. The TATP found in Morrow’s apartment was so volatile that even jostling it could have set off additional explosions. Render-safe procedures conducted by explosive specialists failed, so federal, state and local officials on the case were forced to burn the 16-unit apartment building to the ground.

The Answers Are Out There

It is every law enforcement officer’s desire to protect their constituents and prevent crimes on their beat. Tools and technology can only help so much. Proactive confidential source recruitment reveals information and perspectives unavailable through other means of investigation. Treat every citizen you contact with respect and give them a chance to be one of the good guys. Whether you call it “old-fashioned police work” or community policing, it works. Be safe!


1. U.S. District Attorney’s Office Middle District of Florida. (4/1/19) Plant City Man Sentenced to Five Years for Jacksonville Arson.

2. U.S. District Attorney’s Office Middle District of Florida. (8/28/17) Jacksonville Woman Sentenced to 35 Years for Sex Trafficking, Conspiracy to Distribute Crack Cocaine, and a Firearm Offense.

3. Patrick R. (4/14/16) Man buying pipe at Home Depot had 25 pounds of gunpowder back at motel, Bridgeton police say. St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

4. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency. Bomb-Making Materials Awareness Program.

5. Sater T. (2/22/19) Beaver Dam bomb maker’s co-workers suspicious before explosion, but didn’t call police.

NEXT: Police use of confidential informants

Rick Samples is Director of Investigations for the Office of Inspector General in Jacksonville, Fla. Prior to this position, he served as the Liaison Manager for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Bomb-Making Materials Awareness Program (BMAP), a product of the DHS Office for Bombing Prevention (OBP). A law enforcement veteran with over 30 years of experience, Rick is a graduate of the FBI Hazardous Devices School, a retired Special Agent with the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and an ATF Certified Explosives Specialist. He is also certified by OBP to teach the Bombing Prevention Awareness Course, the Protective Measures Course, and Introduction to the Terrorist Attack Cycle, among others. Rick holds a bachelor’s degree in Workforce Education and Development from Southern Illinois University as well as a graduate certificate in Explosives Technology from Missouri University of Science and Technology.