Confidential informants invokes late night, grade-B movies where the ‘good guys’ catch the ‘bad guy’ through information gained from someone with more to lose by keeping quiet than speaking out.

The term is often used inside law enforcement’s world. A confidential — or criminal — informant, supplies otherwise unknowable data to cops for the purpose of malicious, personal or financial gain.

With DNA testing, computer forensics and cyber-tracking, low-tech criminal informants remain among the most useful tools in law enforcement’s arsenal.

Ethical Issues

Informations are vital to many police investigations. They are particularly critical in narcotics information where specific information is not available from other sources. The bad news: informants are frequently crooks themselves and if not properly handled, they can destroy an investigation, slaughter an agent’s credibility and even cost officers their lives. Formal and sound policies must be in place when an agency uses criminal, or confidential, informants.

Three Actions

There are three actions law enforcement must use to protect the proper use of informants. These are:

  • Policies and procedures
  • Defined Roles, and
  • Training

Policies and Procedures

These policies and procedures must be written down and disseminated throughout the agency. Each agency should build an informant file system that holds personal, descriptive and criminal information about each individual. The manual must clearly establish how an informants’ credibility is established and corroborated.

Defined Roles

The P&P must define the responsibilities of each person in the chain of command. If the roles are not defined, then no one can be held accountable if the information gained from the informant goes south. Supervisory approval from each person authorized in the chain of command must understand the provisions of the informants agreement with the agency. The roles must be spelled out and informations reminded they have no arrest powers, are not permitted to conduct searchers and may not carry guns.


All personnel, which come into contact with confidential informants, must be trained in techniques for working with the sources. Additional training in policies & procedures and the roles played must be provided.

Ethical Issues

When working with informants, narcotics investigations are especially faced with ethical questions. These investigations use confidential informants to lead investigators to their key targets. As insiders in the drug world, they have the ability to go places and talk with people beyond the reach of law enforcement. Informants working within an illegal enterprise are involved in illegal activities.

Law enforcement agencies must develop the training programs to prepared investigators for their dealings with an informant. The training must focus on understanding motivation, agency procedures and legal use of information obtained through an informant.

Oldest Tool

The use of informants is one of law enforcements oldest — and most critical — tool when conducting an investigation. With a fine line separating ethical and unethical actions, law enforcement officers must be vigilant.

“No one who cares about being a good person,” says Nicholas Wooldridge, a Las Vegas defense lawyer, “and doing what is right will have any moral perplexity.”

The Takeaway

There are legal ways to manipulate an informant. Knowing the drug culture aids investigators when interacting with criminal informants and building rapport is important — a comfortable, arms-length distance must be maintained and investigators must know when to end the relationship.