Developing informal informants

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)

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In the Street Survival Seminar I often pick on one of the younger “rookie” officers by asking this question: “How many informants do you have?” The response most often given is: “None.” I follow up with; “Why?” Their retort is usually something like: “Well I’m in patrol and I’ve only been on for 10 months.

When I was a probationary officer, my second FTO — Dane Cuny, who eventually became my partner and subsequently my boss — talked to me almost immediately about the importance of cultivating informants. I remember being surprised at both his passion for the subject and his belief that I needed to learn this skill at such an early stage of my career. Hell, at that point I didn’t even know how to write a speeding ticket because my first FTO wouldn’t allow me to make traffic stops. In his defense, he probably didn’t know how to use the radar gun and he fastidiously avoided putting himself in any position that might have required him to make an arrest.

I listened to Dane and tried to understand his point, but my reflexive thought process was that cultivating informants was a detective responsibility and I doubted I would run into many drug-dealing pimps anyway.

Eventually, I explained to Dane my carefully considered conclusions about informants. After I had explained my deluded thought process, he looked at me as though perplexed and inquired: “What do you think an informant is?

A criminal. A drug dealer. A guy that runs a string of prostitutes. You know, Huggy Bear,” I said with confidence.

Not surprisingly, his response was: “You’re an idiot.” And he was correct, I was an idiot, and for so many more reasons than my inability to grasp the concept of informants and their value to law enforcement.

My erroneous and undeveloped view of informants was gleaned from watching about ten thousand hours of TV Cop shows and Cop movies. To me, informants were criminals who, remarkably, knew everything about every crime and every criminal in the city and would give up their information to undercover detectives for a portion of the wad of cash those detectives always had in their pockets. (I assumed they got the informant cash from their sergeants before they hit the street. I have, as of this writing, never seen that cash in my department.)

Twenty-eight years later I am acutely aware of how important informants are, who they are, what they are, and which law enforcement officers are in the best position to cultivate them. When I ran our Investigations Unit I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic group of investigators. Most of them understood the value of informants and used them constantly. Particularly Ray, Carl, John, and Paul had so many that they could barely keep track of them. But, as good as they were and as often as they used informants, those detectives would be the first to tell you that no one has a better opportunity to develop informants than those working in patrol.

Today unfortunately, the art of cultivating informants seems to be a lost art as it is very much misunderstood on a variety of levels. While I believe the reasons are many, let’s address a few here:

1. Informants are not, nor do they look like, “Huggy Bear.” No, the loveable stable-keeper of a bevy of prostitutes on the Starsky and Hutch TV Show is not a true model of who and what is a real life informant. When I query the young officers in my classes about who are informants they overwhelmingly give the same naïve answers that I gave when I was a 24-year-old rookie. But once in a while one of them nails the answer, which is: “Anyone who can provide you information.” Informants can be criminals, and often, criminals are valuable informants. But witnesses can be informants, victims can be informants, people you meet on your beat can be informants. Hotel workers, gas station attendants, the people who work the counter at convenience stores, cab drivers, priests, teachers...the list is endless.
2. “It is difficult to develop informants.” No it isn’t. Develop a positive relationship with the people you encounter while on the job and you cultivate potential informants. They can be people you assist, arrest, or just chat with in any capacity. Take the opportunity to listen to them, understand their perspectives and concerns, establish trust, educate, and ultimately make yourself available—you will soon find yourself with a flock of people willing to tell you stuff. Will much of it be worthless and inconsequential? Probably, but I guarantee you that information you need will one day present itself.
3. “We have to sign all our informants up formally. I’ll go out on a limb here, not even knowing your policies, but my answer to that belief is, no you don’t. Understand the difference between a working informant and people who simply want to tell you things. Some real life quick examples: A person working at a motel that you say hello to during your shift mentions to you that there are suspicious people in a rented room. They don’t want maid service, use the lobby pay phone, and run down to the parking lot and meet, very briefly, with motorists who pull up throughout the night. You, as a patrol officer pass this information on to the narcotics unit as an FYI. No names are necessary, the person giving you the information doesn’t want to get involved or speak to anyone else. No reason to document anything. Now, if this person wants to be actively involved (read: wear a wire, make a narcotics purchase, etc.) then that is a different story altogether.
4. Veterans and Supervisors don’t teach or encourage the craft. It seems that the topic of cultivating informants isn’t a priority anymore; for whatever reason. I’ve had some students tell me that the only thing important to their respective supervisors is handling 9-1-1 calls so the topic never comes up. Too bad.

The real key to gathering information is in the development of relationships with the people you encounter and with them broaching the subject of crime. Some of the biggest arrests I’ve seen were the result of patrol officers getting information from people they have arrested for minor infractions. What these officers simply did was treat the arrestees with dignity and respect and simply asked them if they knew anything about any crimes. It is amazing how willing people are to talk but, it is even more amazing how some police officers are unwilling to listen.

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