Informants are also an important source of information for law enforcement agencies, especially in areas such as drug dealing and corruption where there is no direct victim. According to Jerome Skolnick, “without a network of informants— usually victims, sometimes police—narcotics police cannot operate” (Skolnick 1994: 117). However, informants are something of a double-edged sword. This includes ‘turned’ corrupt police officers who are being relied on to provide information in relation to the criminal activity of their corrupt colleagues. On the one hand, there have been some spectacular successes, such as the case of Trevor Haken, a former corrupt New South Wales police officer, who was turned and subsequently provided vital information to the New South Wales Commission of Inquiry into police corruption in the late 1990s (Wood 1996). On the other hand, some researchers have questioned the benefits of informants in terms of crime reduction (Dunnighan and Norris 1999). Such informants can also have a corrupting effect on a force’s police culture in general (ICAC 1994).
Informants are often themselves criminals and are typically paid by police or otherwise ‘incentivized’, for example, by the promise of immunity, for the information that they provide. Accordingly, the information provided is not necessarily accurate. Moreover, in order to be provided with information police may have to permit the informant to engage in harmful or criminal behavior, for example, the informant may be allowed to consume illicit drugs, or police may simply turn a blind eye to their informants’ criminal activities—the so-called “licence to deal” given to informants who are themselves drug dealers in order to catch “bigger fish” (Billingsley et al. 2001: Chap. 1). In some cases the informants have become de facto handlers and the police handler the informant. Organized crime, for example, has a vested interest in corrupting police officers and one favored way of doing so is for a criminal, who might actually be a police officer, to become a police informant and for the hitherto investigating police officer (the handler) to begin to feed information to his “informant” in return for financial rewards made available by the organized crime bosses (Billingsley et al. 2001: Chap. 2).
In this context, there is obviously a need for stringent accountability mechanisms, including documenting and naming the informant, ensuring that a police officer with an informant has a supervisor who meets with the officer and the informant, having a supervisor who monitors the police officer’s dealings with the informant, and recording all payments (including electronic transfers to prevent theft) (HMIC 1999; ICAC 1994). However, such accountability mechanisms generate problems of their own. There is considerable risk attached to being an informant and a consequent need for strict confidentiality. Concern for their own safety can cause would-be informants not to become such, if there is to be documentation indicating their identity or if persons other than their immediate handler are to be made aware of their identity.
Safety measures—including monitoring the informant/handler relationship, and close confidentiality protection for informants and their disclosures—need to be buttressed by rigorous training in informant management (Rampart Inquiry 2000: 352). Moreover, the utility of intelligence provided by informants needs to be maximized, for example, by means of a central (protected) data source. However, this is obviously at the very least problematic, and probably undesirable, in the case of informants who are police officers. Some authors have suggested the use of ethics committees to test and quality assure informant-handling proposals; others have recommended random integrity testing in relation to the use of informants (Billingsley 2001: 63-64). A further issue is whether an outside person, such as a magistrate, ought to approve and supervise informants, as happens in Belgium and Netherlands (Gill 2000: 183).