Criminal Informants and Other Injustices in Little Rock

Over the weekend, Washington Post investigative journalist and Cato alumnus Radley Balko published a devastating report on a drug unit in Little Rock, Arkansas. The squad has been conducting a high number of no-knock raids on drug suspects on evidence supplied by a less-than-reputable criminal informant. As Balko notes, that the police quite literally signed off on some of the informant’s apparent lies is one of myriad problems he uncovered in his investigation.

There are many shocking aspects to Balko’s story, but in the end, much of what he found in Little Rock reflects a broader problem of police reliance on informants to fight the drug war. Today, I published a piece in Democracy Journal explaining the many ways informants corrupt our justice system and policing itself. An excerpt:

The rules for using confidential (also called “criminal”) informants [CIs] in criminal investigations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but generally speaking, employing CIs introduces three systemic flaws into the criminal justice system. First, the use of confidential informants definitionally requires secrecy and opacity, which shields CIs and officers alike from sufficient oversight and accountability. Second, the informant system relies on bad inputs—namely, drug-addicted individuals and other people immersed in criminal activity to act as agents of the government—and thus effectively becomes a subsidy for criminal behavior. Third, the use of confidential informants creates some bad incentives for law enforcement actors and the CIs themselves, which skew toward case production and away from public safety and security. Taken together, and in the context of our everyday justice system, these flaws produce an array of bad individual and public policy outcomes while providing only superficial benefits for law enforcement.

Coincidentally, I recently testified before the Arkansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Little Rock. The committee invited me to talk about how police practices contribute to the pronounced racial disparities in mass incarceration. Among other things, my testimony included a criticism of Little Rock police using invasive, neighborhood-based pretextual traffic stops to quell an uptick in violence. Such methods fuel community resentment of the police and have not been shown to reduce crime in the process.

You can read Balko’s piece in full here. My commentary on informants can be found here. And the written version of my testimony in Little Rock can be found here.