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Slugs on the Road: Analyzing the Issues Associated With the Use of Police Informants In the United States
Fort Drum is a military training reservation that is located in Jefferson County, upstate New York. Situated on mainly forested land, it is surrounded on all sides by dark cedar trees with the beige complex of the Fort sticking out above the shrubbery like a spire piercing the bright blue sky. The reservation houses permanent residences and families, as the 10th Mountain Division routinely trains and does exercises within the surrounding borders. Many of its activities involve training in both normal and intense conditions, which can sometimes put soldiers in dangerous situations with little time for reaction and recovery. One such unfortunate incident was the death of 24-year-old U.S. Army Specialist Lafayette Trawick.
On November 4th, 1987, Trawick and four soldiers were performing maneuvers on the reservation that surrounded Ft. Drum, when he was suddenly shot and killed. When police first arrived on the scene, they questioned the four men Trawick was with to see what they had witnessed on that night. All of them repeated the same story; “The four soldiers with Trawick told authorities that a sedan stopped on a dirt road about 80 feet from where they were standing. An occupant in the car fired a gun and then the vehicle sped off” (The National Registry of Exonerations). Upon further inspection, police found expended shotgun shells at the location where the vehicle was supposedly spotted. The case remained unchanged and unsolved for over a year when suddenly longtime police informant James McAvoy told the police he had new information on the case. He explained that Gary Woodside Jr, who was a friend of his, had told him that on the night of Trawick’s death, Woodside had gone jacking deer (illegally killing deer by flashing a light on them to frighten them in place), and that after shooting what he thought was a deer, he realized it was a man instead. McAvoy additionally noted that he previously hesitated to give this information to the police, as he had negative experiences with them in the past. Following these new discoveries, police sent McAvoy with a hidden microphone to talk to Woodside, where he was recorded making what seemed like confessions to the crime. Once taken into police custody, however, he claimed he had been aware that he was being recorded and had been joking about it while speaking to McAvoy. Nonetheless, Woodside pleaded guilty of the murder and was sentenced to four years in prison as a result.
In 2004, more than 12 years later, the New York State Police Department received a phone call from James B. Roberts, who claimed he had more information on the case, which by then had been closed. James Roberts claimed that on the night of Trawick’s death, Roberts and his brother, Joseph, had gone hunting in those same woods. Their mother was an officer who was stationed at Ft. Drum at the time. Joseph had shot at what seemed like two deer eyes, heard someone scream “stop it!” for a brief moment, and assumed nothing of it and left. After police recovered the weapon and shotgun slugs and ran a forensic analysis on both, they received a statement from Joseph saying he believed he was there on the night of Trawick’s death, and it was him who ultimately killed the man. Using this evidence, the police concluded that indeed Joseph had perpetrated the original crime and that Woodside had no association whatsoever. Joseph was never prosecuted as the statute of limitations had run out on criminally negligent homicide. In 2007 Supreme Court Judge Kim Martusewicz granted Woodside’s motion of conviction and set him free from his false charges (Flatley, 1).
Looking back on the events that led up to the false conviction of Gary Woodside Jr, one thing is quite clear: if not for police informant James McAvoy, Gary would never have gotten into such a situation in the first place. Individuals like McAvoy further question the role that informants play in criminal investigations and how effective they really are at work they are tasked with doing. While seemingly useful in theory, this practice is, in actuality, a corrupt aspect of the justice system that puts little limits on the power that police departments have. This turns police informants from tools used for civil service into puppets, utilized for the selfish greed of the departments they work for. Police informants are unreliable sources of information that corrode the integrity of the Justice System more than they uphold it.
To gain a better perspective on police informants in general, it is crucial to understand how often they are used throughout the United States. Statistics vary depending on the sources you use, as laws can change from state to state. Overwhelmingly, however, police informants are used as often as the police departments deem fit in whatever circumstances they put them in at their own discretion.
The use of police informants is both widespread and common, thus their frequency of use has created issues with how effective they actually are. The ACLU of New Jersey, an organization which specializes in the research of wrongful convictions and acts of injustice within the New Jersey tri-state area since 1999, uncovered that not only were police informants used excessively throughout almost all New Jersey police departments, but that those same departments were frequently changing up who their police informants were. Thus, it became virtually impossible for both the departments and the people conducting the study to determine who had been a police informant in the past and who had not. Additionally, the study established that there were widespread issues of corruption that existed within the Jersey police system. It became common practice that police informants were rewarded with money or lesser sentences in exchange for changing some aspects of their testimonies or outright lying about the facts of a specific event. This way, the police could obtain better and more convincing testimonies from the informants, convincing the presiding Judge to grant them a warrant to conduct whatever business they needed to do (ACLU-New Jersey). An additional study by the New York State Bar Association, a non-profit that works with legislatures and policymakers to find solutions to laws involved with false convictions, in their May 30th conference, suggested the method of preventing further injustice was by cutting the problem off at its roots. That is, preventing the spread of false information by limiting the power that police departments have in changing that information by, for example, giving informants bribes or lessening harsher sentences in exchange for altering the facts of a case (New York State Bar Association).
The prevalence and usage of police informants create issues with transparency and accountability for police departments that conduct unjust practices. The fact that multitudes of police informants are involved in these issues has less to do with an individualistic look on the problem, but more so with the system itself. There is so much freedom that comes with the policies and laws surrounding the use of police informants, that it does not allow for those departments to be held accountable for their actions. Therefore, the system repeats itself, and the wider issues remain unchanged and propagate. Understanding the extent that this issue persists within the United States is important to get an overview of how far the system has negatively progressed, but it is also important to be educated about the laws that the system is based upon. After all, it is those same laws that keep the use of police informants grounded in dishonesty, which shows itself in the frequency of false convictions that occur.
Laws associated with police informants are incredibly important, as they define the extent that police have the power and authority to use informants at their own discretion. The reality, however, is that many of those laws are unchecked and not enforced. This gives complete authority to police departments, which revokes accountability for effectiveness, corrupting the officer involved and the whole department in the process.
On a national level, the use of informants by the FBI and other government institutions promotes distrust that echoes and reverberates throughout the opinions of citizens. In turn, an atmosphere of tension is created between the people and its government, one that promotes a dysfunctional relationship between the two. This is evident in a Washington Law Review 1996 study, which discussed the ways that laws surrounding informants by the FBI can create a negative connotation on their role and shift the issue away from a place of productivity:
Security and privacy interests are jeopardized when individuals learn that the government
has recruited and planted informants into their lives to gather information. When we
discover that the colleague, the neighbor, or the business partner is not what he appears to
be, but instead is a covert police agent, our distrust of government is exacerbated. (Washington Law Review, 1)
This example, however, is one that many do not face on a regular basis. The one that people should get a better grasp of, however, are State laws in regard to the use of police informants and the discrepancies that occur in how those laws are applied. As is noted on the official website of New York State Courts, which discusses the basis of judicial law in New York State, the law regarding police informant use is loose and without much restriction and regulation. The use of informants is under police jurisdiction via a need for “obtaining information,” therefore giving officers full authority to do what they please without any monitoring of the process. There is also no specification that police departments must keep any written record of who their police informants are (New York State Courts Dot Gov). This was also supported by the previous ACLU-New Jersey study, which added that the same issue existed within New Jersey police precincts as well (ACLU-New Jersey).
There are clear issues with the way that police departments conduct business with police informants. However, the overarching issues that need to be addressed are the ones involving the system itself, and how it promotes these kinds of behaviors. Because the rule of law surrounding police informants is so open and puts so much trust in the way the departments use their informants, it leaves room for corrupt individuals and practices to foster without a check on such actions. Even worse is that there is no law mandating that the use of police informants is recorded, thus no way to prove that such corrupt practices are even occurring in the first place. Laws like this just promote the systemic abuse of power instead of solving them.
Even in the darkest places though, there are still examples of successful cops and laws that conduct honest work. It is important to understand what incentives police departments offer to promote an environment of honesty and long-lasting trust between the informer and the police officer that obtains the most reliable and credible information. In recent times, many states have realized that such unequivocal trust in police departments has only been detrimental to their constituents and their reputations overall.
New York State Senators and legislative authorities have taken new steps in tightening the restrictions on what Police Departments can do when involved with police informants. A bill sponsored by former Senator Bill Perkins reads, “To amend the law in relation to confidential informants by defining confidential informants; by imposing restrictions on who and who may not be a confidential informant; by regulating the use of confidential informants” (Perkins 1). While the bill is still in early stages of development, currently being modified and rewritten for minor alterations, the intentions and changes that such a bill would make would be positive to the status quo in New York. Hamilton Spectator writer Nicole O’Reilly explains a similar idea in an article she wrote discussing officer Craig Ruthowsky, “who is accused of being part of a criminal organization, including allegedly conspiring to traffic cocaine and bribery.” An important detail of the conviction is that officer Rutowsky was caught in the first place due to checks and balances in the use of police informants within his department. So when he crossed the line, he was immediately reported and later convicted for bribery and cocaine trafficking (O’Reilly 1).
Departments and individuals throughout the United States are still willing to change the status quo and improve the corrupt system to one that better serves the public with honesty and integrity. Stricter rules are clearly a more effective system than a hands-off approach, like with New York State Bill S5732. It may be arguable that without a system to enforce it things may not really change. However, this situation should be treated less like a universal solution and more so as a step in the right direction, to create a positive precedent by which to improve the system moving forward.
Understanding what motivates informants and police officers alike is key to address in order to be able to create laws and policies that promote honesty and integrity as opposed to illegal and biased behavior.
Alexandra Natapoff, Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, writes in her book, Snitching, about examples of the terrible consequences that occur when police informants lie and end up not being as trustworthy as they claim.
Albert Burrell spent thirteen years on death row for a murder he did not commit. Atlanta police killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston during a misguided raid on her home. After being released by Chicago prosecutors, Darryl Moore—drug dealer, hitman, and rapist—returned home to rape an eleven-year-old girl. Such tragedies are consequences of snitching—police and prosecutors offering deals to criminal offenders in exchange for information.” (Natapoff, 1)
The same can be said about the New Jersey Police Department, where the ACLU study mentioned numerous examples of how the practices conducted by authorities created situations in which people with extensive records and convictions were released, and then later arrested again, keeping recidivism rates high (ACLU-New Jersey).
Issues that persist within the criminal justice system have impacts on innocent individuals who have no involvement in the first place. This danger needs to be addressed immediately, as it creates the perception that the primary cause of innocent deaths is the police officers themselves. As the public realization of this increases, it creates immense distrust between the authorities and citizens, hindering key cooperation and an important relationship in both police conduct and safety.
What this boils down to is that the current norms that exist within laws involving police informants on both federal and state levels, are not effectively keeping power that the police departments have in check. This “laissez-faire” approach to the implementation of laws has resulted in corruption both within the departments and on a more individualistic and systemic level. Rules and regulations need to be enforced in order to curb the misuse of power by keeping police departments accountable for their actions, and making sure that the transparencies that exist now are removed. When issues do occur, accountability is left to the individual officers or departments instead of being shrugged off or viewed as an outlier to the situation. While these issues are not easily fixable, and that is a fact that can be acknowledged, there are steps that government institutions and police departments can take and have taken in order to put integrity back into the system.
A legislative solution that can resolve such a major issue is to make sure police departments have written records of who they are using as police informants. This stems from the issue that without a method of keeping track of when police informants are used, there is no method of knowing the actions that police officers take, and doesn't keep them accountable for their actions. By fixing this one issue, and enforcing it, it will allow state and federal departments to keep the police in check, by making sure that they are aware that their actions are recorded, and therefore, have punishable consequences, making it a lot easier for them to do honest work. As the New York State Bar Association explains, having a conversation about the issue and addressing it is the first step to solving it, and taking some initial measures for change will allow for future actions to make improvements to the system overall (New York State Bar Association).
The hope is that by reading this paper, many Americans who did not have a great understanding of the issues involving police informants in the justice system are educated and get a better understanding of the circumstances that surround them. While it is impossible to predict whether an active change will come of such a paper, being informed of the issue indirectly promotes the idea of change, and just by reading it, more and more people will vote for legislators that support those changes in the future. This will slowly alter the use of police informants into better civil servants, and in the process, helping save the lives of many who would have otherwise been affected.
“Confidential Informant Study Reveals Weaknesses in New Jersey Police Practices.” Home, ACLU, 27 June 2011.
Flatley, Daniel. “Sheriff Burns Stands His Ground.” Watertown Daily Times, Watertown Daily Times, 18 Jan. 2013.
Maclin, Tracey. “Informants and the Fourth Amendment: A Reconsideration.” Washington University Law Review, Washington University Law Review, Jan. 1996.
“May 30, 2012: Stop Wrongful Convictions Now: Innocence Project and New York State Bar Association Call to Action.” NYSBA: New York State Bar Association, Serving the Legal Profession and the Community since 1876, NYSBA, 30 May 2012.
Natapoff, Alexandra. “Prison Legal News.” Secret Justice: Criminal Informants and America's Underground Legal System | Prison Legal News, Prison Legal News, 15 June 2010.
Natapoff, Alexandra. “Snitching.” NYU Press, NYU Press, Apr. 2011.
New York State. “Overview.” New York Courts Dot Gov, 18 Aug. 2016.
O'Reilly, Nicole. “THE INSIDERS: The Rules and Pitfalls of Police Informants.” TheSpec.com, The Hamilton Spectator, 1 Sept. 2015.>
Perkins, Bill. “NY State Senate Bill S5732.” NY State Senate, NY State Senate, 8 Nov. 2017.
Possley, Maurice. “Gary Woodside, Jr.” Gary Woodside, Jr. - National Registry of Exonerations, The National Registry of Exonerations, 20 Dec. 2013.