Working in the Shadows: The Trouble When Police Work With Confidential Informants

February 6, 2009 9:25:29 PM PST
The recent arrest of two Fresno police officers has led to an investigation within the department. Paul Cervantes and Hector Becerra are accused of stealing a car taken from a suspect in a drug bust. That led Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer to shut down the department's narcotics unit earlier this week.The investigation has put a spotlight on undercover narcotics operations and raised questions about the use of confidential informants.

Since officers don't like to talk much about how they operate, we're getting an insider's look from a retired FBI counterterrorism agent who lives in Coarsegold now.

Dr. Kathleen Puckett says a lot of officers cross over to the wrong side of the law -- even in well-run departments, like most people say Fresno's is. From a $1 million pot bust in November 2008, to a $500,000 meth bust just in September 2008, the police department's narcotics unit has brought down some big drug rings around town.

But to get the information they need to take down drug dealers, investigators often have to work in the shadows, alongside some pretty dangerous characters. "There isn't any way they're going to be able to penetrate an organization or even a smaller group involved with drugs without forming relationships with people who are in that group or attached to it somehow," said Dr. Puckett.

She's a former special agent for the FBI, and a one-time narcotics officer who ended up working in counterterrorism. Dr. Puckett consulted on some of the highest profile cases in the U.S. -- like the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and the Olympic Park bombing, carried out by Eric Robert Rudolph.

She says working with confidential informants becomes an everyday moral challenge for officers. They're tempted to break the law in order to enforce it, especially when they're under pressure from supervisors. "There's always somebody they're having to satisfy," she said. "They're having to satisfy the higher authorities. There's pressure on them to bring cases in."

And once they start drifting away from the law, Dr. Puckett says they'll probably keep drifting further, and under less scrutiny. When the busts keep coming, she says the supervisors are less likely to question how they're coming. "Ironically, a very high performing unit can turn out to have internal problems that aren't looked after because they perform so well," Dr. Puckett said.

She also says officers who break the law to help out their confidential informants are more likely to break it again to help themselves.

At this point, none of the Fresno police officers are charged with taking anything for themselves. Chief Dyer says his narcotics unit is temporarily suspended while an outside agency audits the operation.

Web Extra:

Who is Dr. Kathleen Puckett?
She's a former special agent with the FBI, who worked 23 years, mainly in counterintelligence. She was assigned to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is a nuclear research facility in the Bay Area. She consulted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory after scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of 59 counts of mishandling classified information by downloading nuclear secrets ? "weapons codes" used for computer simulations of nuclear weapons tests -- to data tapes and removing them from the lab.

http://www.homelandinsecuritythebook.com

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