Police Put Young Informants in Grave Danger: Q&A with Author Sarah Stillman

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Below is a real time, Google Chat interview that Leonard Witt conducted with Sarah Stillman, who recently wrote an article for the New Yorker entitled: The Throwaways; the subhead sums up the story well: “Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants. But the work is high-risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.” So let’s get started.

Leonard Witt: Hi Sarah, first thanks for agreeing to do this interview, you have written a great, heart breaking story, centered around these two sentences from your story: “Every day, offenders are sent out to perform high-risk police operations with few legal protections. Some are juveniles, occasionally as young as fourteen or fifteen.” So my first question is why does it happen?

Sarah Stillman: Well, on the one hand, this system has been around for quite some time — for more than a century, the police have recognized that using “insiders” to gather information on hard-to-penetrate criminal networks can be tremendously useful to them.  The major shift we’ve seen is that, all too often, the young people used as informants in the war on drugs aren’t actually big-time insiders, so much as small-time users or dealers deployed to go after other small-time users or dealers.  There are so few regulations governing the use of informants in some areas, and so many incentives pushing in the opposite direction.  To name just one: informants are cheap to employ, both financially and procedurally (in that they usually don’t require a warrant or other forms of judicial approval to use).

Witt: You say these young offenders who are used as confidential informants aren’t big time offenders. Can you give an example of what might cause a kid to be enlisted into this role and is enlisted the right word?

Stillman: The range of offenses that can mark the beginning of a young person’s use as an informant is tremendously broad.  In my story, I wrote about a teenager in Kentucky, LeBron Gaither, who punched his teacher at school, then wound up facing a juvenile assault charge; he was offered a way out of prison if he would become a local drug informant.  In another case I highlight, a young man in Washington St. named Jeremy McLean was caught selling eight methadone pills.  In both cases, the young men’s work as informants led to their violent deaths.

And, yes, I think “enlisted” works.

Witt: A punch in one case and eight pills in another turn into death sentences. Sounds like cruel and unusual punishment. What do you think?

Stillman: I think it’s quite shocking when young minor offenders are put into situations that are significantly more dangerous than the ones they were trying to escape.  Another surprise for me was that often, once the informants have done the work, they receive death threats, go to authorities for help and protection, and receive none — that was certainly the case of Jeremy McLean, whose life was threatened non-stop in the months before he was killed.  It was heartbreaking to hear from his family about how he had been living in virtual house arrest.

Witt: The police don’t come off very well in your story. How are they being held accountable — or are they being held accountable? If not, why not?

Stillman: For starters, I’ve been surprised by how some police, themselves, are critical of the lack of regulations, because it can put them in a bind: if they don’t have clear procedures in place that govern when and how they can use informants, and that help them make very difficult on-the-spot decisions, then they are more likely to get into situations that lead to tragic outcomes, and possibly to scandals.  This is particularly true in cases where police departments or task forces are under a lot of pressure to rack up their drug-bust numbers in order to maintain federal funding. In many of the cases I highlighted, families who’d lost their children to poorly-regulated C.I. use wound up suing the city and the police force.  That’s the most common avenue for people seeking accountability, I suspect.

Witt: Tell us more about the financial incentives for the police to force kids into this kind of extremely dangerous work?

Stillman: Before I started speaking to policy experts on this issue, I had no idea how much certain financial incentives drive drug-war practices, including the widespread use of informants to orchestrate big drug busts.  In many cases, regional narcotics task forces like the one that conscripted Jeremy McLean are funded by the federal government, in quantities that are tied directly to the number of drug busts they are able to generate, the size of the busts themselves (i.e. quantity of drugs and other illegal goods confiscated), and other such factors.  If the police don’t manage to pull off enough busts, a key funding source dries up. This dynamic led Jeremy’s father to believe (rightly, I think) that one reason his son was used again and again and again to initiate drug busts in a relatively small area where his identity was likely to become compromised was, ultimately, structural.

I should also mention that asset forfeiture laws allow police to keep a portion — up to 80%, in many cases — of what they confiscate during busts, which may lead to their acquisition of cash, cars, boats, and more.

Witt: Lives for cash doesn’t seem very moral?

Stillman: Right. I should say, of course, that most police would emphasize that they try to enhance drug bust numbers because they are trying to get drugs off the streets, not because they are strictly after cash!  And I don’t think there’s a single explain-it-all force driving these practices; I think it’s complicated, and a variety of factors are at play.  The real question remains: is it helpful or counterproductive to go after drugs and crime with an under-regulated method that seems to regularly produce very, very sad outcomes?  In the cases I write about in “The Throwaways,” the final results would indicate that, rather then stemming crime and violence, more violence was created.

Witt: I have to go back to something you said earlier: “…families who’d lost their children to poorly-regulated C.I. use wound up suing the city and the police force.  That’s the most common avenue for people seeking accountability, I suspect.”  So in other words, a kid has to be killed to get change? Isn’t there a better avenue?

Stillman: Part of the message of the story, I think, was to ask, “Why don’t we think about these things prior to tragedy? Why is it that the only time we seem to inquire about these practices is after a young person has been killed?” In the cases where calls for accountability have emerged — like in Florida, where a law was passed to govern informant use — the driving force has almost always been a high-profile death (in that case, the murder of Rachel Hoffman).  It also makes you wonder how often informant deaths take place that we’re not even hearing about, since many victims’ families don’t have much access to legal resources and may not be likely to sue or lobby for legislative reform.

Witt: Playing off that answer, the use of confidential informants has happened mostly under the radar of everyday citizens and maybe lawmakers too. In fact, you have one lawyer Daniel Taylor III, saying, “ “I’ve been wondering when the hell the rest of the world was going to wake up to this.” How pervasive is this practice? Just a few isolated cases or is it nationwide — and if it is the latter, using Taylor’s words, “when the hell [is] the rest of the world was going to wake up to this?”

Stillman: I think we can be confident that it’s very pervasive. As I mentioned earlier, informants are used in an extraordinarily wide array of cases — sometimes in helpful ways (like going after insider trading on Wall Street, going after white supremacist groups or racketeers or whatnot), and often in the counterproductive ways I profile in the story.  There are so many cases I learned about that didn’t make it into the story, and again, those are only scratching the surface of informants’ deaths and misuse — I closely examined dozens of cases, and we can be certain there are many more. For instance, there are angles we often don’t think about; I spoke to the mother of a young man named Colton Peterson, who committed suicide after he was facing tremendous pressure to go to work as an informant after a minor pot bust.  So, if cases like his are included in our sense of the overall picture — and I very much think they should be — the issue is huge.  It seems to be grieving parents who are at the vanguard of calling for some policy reforms — Colton’s parents, Hoffman’s parents, as well as lawyers like Daniel Taylor.

Witt: Last question: Your story shines a spotlight on a very dark corner of our justice system. In your mind, what might be the best outcome from this story?

Stillman: I felt so grateful for the chance to report the story and to listen to the voices of the parents and family members who’ve been speaking out on this issue, from Detroit to Montana to Kentucky.  I truly hope their voices will be factored into the policy debate on these issues.  Frankly, though, there doesn’t seem to be much debate on the use of young informants to begin with, and I imagine that’s the first thing that has to change.  Part of what excites me about the role of journalists is that we get to shed light on issues we believe are important, and then, from there, hope that others will take on the urgent tasks of continuing the debate and finding meaningful solutions.

Witt: Thank you Sarah for a great piece of literary journalism and thanks to the editors of the New Yorker for helping make it possible. And thanks for your time and insightful answers here. It is deeply appreciated.

Stillman: And thanks to you, Leonard, for taking the time.  I really appreciate the chance to have this conversation.

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