As a young crime squad constable attempting to establish myself as a suitable candidate for selection into the CID I was a busy as a bee getting involved in anything and everything. There was, however, one part of the selection process which I was totally hopeless at and that was having informants. The problem I faced was that many of the older supervising detectives had worked in the service when informants were a regular feature of detective work and there was an expectation that if that’s how they did it then you should follow their example.
I had no shortage of prisoners and many good crime arrests, but I just couldn’t bring myself to suggest to a prisoner that they should become an informant. As far as I was concerned I was the copper and they were criminals and any attempt to persuade a criminal to supply information on other criminals somehow blurred the line between us. If criminals were helping to catch criminals would criminals attempt to persuade coppers to become criminals? The answer to that is ‘yes’ and the corruption of some police officers has been traced to their initial attempt to cultivate a criminal to be a snitch, grass or informant.
As I progressed in service it became apparent to me that informants providing good information about serious criminals were often ‘protected’ by the police. Indeed there have been numerous occasions when criminals have been given permission by the police to be a participant in a crime in order to capture the main players. These authorisations are documented and any participating informant is given clear instructions as to what they can and can’t do. The big problem with informants is that although the police will always protect their true identity defence barristers representing serious criminals will try every trick they can think of to force the police to disclose the identity of an informant. The police don’t disclose informant’s details and many serious criminal cases have been abandoned in order to protect the informant. When big cases collapse because the police need to protect the existence of an informant you have to question whether informants are actually worth the effort.
Although reluctant to approach charged prisoners with the suggestion that they become an informant I have on many occasions had prisoners ask me if they could become an informant. The only problem, however, is that on every such occasion the prisoner asking was only asking in the hope that they would get bail from the police station after charge. This is when the line starts to blur. Say for example I have just charged an individual with a serious criminal offence which is likely to receive a custodial sentence and in my heart of hearts, I believe they should be locked up. Then they offer to provide some top-notch information about a criminal gang planning an armed robbery and if they get bail they promise to get back to me with the details of the robbery. It can be very tempting to go along with them and let them have bail so they can give you information later on about other criminals.
Now it’s not the investigating officer who decides on bail, it’s the custody sergeant and their decision is final. Thankfully I always got on very well with my uniform colleagues and most times the custody Sergeant would go along with my recommendations concerning bail, but the decision rests with them and also potentially blame should a magistrate or judge question the custody sergeant why a repeat offender was granted bail. In the example above where a charged prisoner offers to give information about a criminal gang planning an armed robbery if granted bail the custody sergeant isn’t going to be told that the person is going to become an informant, although many of the more experienced sergeants read between the lines and understand the situation. However, that very same custody sergeant made find themselves justifying granting bail if things go wrong down the line, and inevitably they do.
The thing is at the time the prisoner makes the offer to be an informant they probably mean it, but once outside the police station attitudes change. I didn’t like placing custody sergeants in an awkward position and I was also conscious that questions could be asked of me about my integrity if I was encouraging custody sergeants to grant bail to serious criminals. I generally kept these prisoners in custody overnight and let the court decide if they got bail. If they did I would try and persuade the prisoner that they now had to come good on their promise and if they didn’t get bail, what the heck.
I know that coppers in particular detectives used to make deals with criminals with the best of motives, but I never liked it. On one occasion one of my informants got arrested by another detective and no sooner than the other detective started to interview him he stated that he wanted to see me. He had this impression that being an informant somehow gave him some protection from the law and I soon put him right on that.
Informants are an integral part of some policing departments and I automatically think of the ‘Sweeney’ but for me, they were more of a problem than they were worth and throughout my service, I only ever had a couple of low-grade informants. Not my cup of tea.
PS A Dogs Nose is another name for an informant.