Informants can provide a wealth of information to law enforcement, but that information can come at a price if officers are not careful how they deal with them. Too many officers fall into common traps with informants, leading to bad cases, blown operations, or personal complaints.

We will look at a few important tips designed to keep informants working for you, as opposed to just working you.

Know Who’s in Charge

It may come as a surprise that many officers fail to keep this in mind when dealing with informants. Despite the obvious help that informants are able to provide, officers can perform their jobs equally well without them. Informants have a sneaky way of working themselves into positions of prominence over “their” officers. Once they give a good piece of information, many officers will bend over backwards to get whatever information they say they have.

Instead, remind your informant that you’re the boss. There is no mistaking that informants inherently are betrayers of trust. They betray their friends, cohorts, and confidants. There is no reason to think they won’t stab you in the back when given the chance, as well. Too many officers go charging after leads developed by one phone call without doing their research. Be leery if an informant tells you where you “have to go right now.” Approach the situation with caution and use your backup. Don’t let them run the show.

Know Their Motivation

This is crucial, not only for officer safety reasons, but for the prosecution of any case you develop from an informant’s offerings. Anyone who has worked with informants long enough knows who makes the best snitches: scorned women. Their motivation? Sweet revenge! Of course, officers are more than happy to help secure this revenge by busting the former beau. Just remember, as quickly as these women can turn on their boyfriends, they can turn back to them even quicker. Get as much information as you can because that well may dry up the next day…or even in the next hour!

Sometimes arrestees will spew information in an attempt to get out of whatever charge they have incurred. While this can be a source of great information, check it closely. These informants have a very specific motivation – to save themselves a lot of jail time. Check and double-check their information before acting on it, and never promise the arrested suspect a reduced sentence. That is up to the District Attorney. If you make any promises to an informant, you’ll have a heck of a time in court if the DA doesn’t want to play along, or if the defense attorney hears about it.

Document, Document, Document!

Documentation is the key to all successful informant contacts. Convictions won’t stick in court if you can’t back track your information. Record every contact you have with your informants, as well as the information they provide, even if it’s simple and non-specific information.

For example, let’s say an informant tells you, “Johnny is selling dope on Oak Street.” You may have no idea who “Johnny” is, and the informant doesn’t have any other information on this specific tip. Still, record it and ask them where they got the information. A month later, “Johnny” might get arrested for sales and your narcotics guys may be trying to find his stash. Bingo. That irrelevant and non-specific tip just yielded a goldmine for your narcs.

Finally, documentation can also help save you in case your informant decides to trump up charges that you tried something illegal. Many officers have complaints levied against them by angry informants who couldn’t get a “get out of jail free” card in exchange for the information they’ve supplied. The next thing the officer knows, internal affairs is investigating them about a complaint leveled by that same informant. Proper documentation can impeach the accuser, and protect you.

Informants can be a lot of fun to work and can be great sources of information. Just remember, you are in charge and keep all of your department’s rules in mind. Then, go out and work those leads!