Cultivating Effective Gang Informants

In the long war between police gang fighters and the outlaw criminal gangs, gang defectors can be important and valuable allies. Unless someone in your team has the ability to recruit, cultivate, and utilize criminal informants, you're just functioning as procedural processors relying on chance to develop cases.

Valdemar 1 Headshot

The best scout we ever had in Vietnam was a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) defector. These former NVA soldiers were called choi hoi (open arms in Vietnamese) scouts. Propaganda leaflets dropped from U.S. aircraft coined the term, suggested that defecting NVA would be received with open arms by the south.

Many U.S. soldiers distrusted these choi hoi scouts and generally disliked vietnamese soldiers from the north and the south. But I noticed that unlike the other Vietnamese soldiers who worked with my unit, this scout would move out and protect our flank each time we stopped. Even in villages, he would circle out and confront and question any approaching Vietnamese when we would stop.

He was small in stature even for a Vietnamese.  We nicknamed him "Cowboy," which was the slang term for young thugs and gang members who operated in Vietnamese criminal gangs in the larger cities. Cowboy earned his fast-gun nickname and distinguished himself during the Tet holiday in 1968 in the coastal city of Nha Trang. Unlike the majority of south Vietnamese soldiers who traditionally deserted during the Chinese New Year, Cowboy was with my unit at 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 when NVA mortars, rockets, and sappers hit us hard. The city was under siege and our radios were jammed with the surreal, melodious "Stranger on the Shore."

Cowboy was the only Vietnamese soldier who engaged in house-to-house combat with U.S. units in the first couple of days when we were badly outnumbered by the NVA, and we were getting our asses kicked. He killed many of his former NVA comrades with great skill and courage. Eventually we turned the tide of battle, and after several days we were mopping up by going after the remaining NVA who refused to surrender and died fighting. Suddenly during the mopping up, the missing South Vietnamese Army soldiers reappeared.

Why was Cowboy such a good choi hoi scout? What made him different from other south Vietnamese soldiers? The difference was that he had once been on the other side. Cowboy knew the tactics, the thinking, and the capabilities of our enemy. He also knew that if he were wounded or captured, an especially terrible fate awaited him because he was a defector. He had a personal stake in helping us win. I hope he got out, before we abandoned our Vietnamese allies.

In the long war between police gang fighters and the outlaw criminal gangs, gang defectors can be important and valuable allies. But like my example of Cowboy, some cops dislike and distrust all gang defectors.

Unless someone in your team has the ability to recruit, cultivate, and utilize criminal informants, you're just functioning as procedural processors relying on chance to develop cases. Despite what you might have seen on TV or the movies, law enforcement today almost never uses undercover officers to infiltrate dangerous criminal organizations. Yes, they use electronic surveillance tactics, but they need informants, confidential sources, cooperating witnesses, and snitches.

Because of the unfortunate history of local and federal police misuse of informants, most departments are gun shy about using them. There are often procedural hurdles built into law enforcement policy manuals for fear of these abuses. The more restrictive the policy, the more limited the investigative ability or department investigators.

My own manual said, "Prior to the utilization of the informant, sworn members shall evaluate the informant's background to determine if the informant is suitable for use, including a history of serious criminal offences or other activities, which might compromise an investigation, or the department in any way."

It goes on to state, "Informants shall be instructed not to participate in the criminal activities of persons under investigation unless a feigned participation has been deemed necessary for the purposes of prosecution. Furthermore, informants shall be instructed that their assistance to the department does not give them authorization to violate any laws, nor do they have any official status as agents or employees of the department. Any feigned participation in criminal activities by informants must be thoroughly briefed as to the limits of their participation."

It also added the caveat, "Additionally, the informant's motivation, reliability and potential involvement in criminal activity shall be evaluated against the nature and seriousness of the offence under investigation."

The manual also severely restricted the use of jailhouse informants, requiring officers to obtain a court order before their use. Even greater restrictions should be considered when the potential informant is a juvenile, addict, possible double agent, con man, or sexually promiscuous person.

Unfortunately in attempting to develop sources "in the know" inside the upper levels of a violent criminal street or prison gang every one of these individuals would not qualify under the above described restrictions. Policies like these are written by lawyers and risk managers, not by criminal investigators.

While working in an FBI task force, I found that the feds were even more needlessly restrictive when it came to criminal gang informants. They were not very good at informant development. They relied heavily on local officers and their already developed stables of informants.

I know of several notorious instances where corrupted police officers misused their informants. However, in every one of these cases it was not informants that corrupted these officers. The officers were bad officers to start. They just continued in their normal method of operation but now this included the abuse of informants.

Informant development can be broken down to six stages. Initially, gang officers must be open to spotting potential informants; lose the anti-snitch attitude. In the world of gangs, anybody could be a potential informant. With every contact you make, consider whether this person may provide me with invaluable information I need. The pessimistic attitude that no one will give you any useful information will result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The second stage is assessing the viability and value of any potential informants. Is this a person associated with gang insiders or is this an active member of the inner circle of the targeted group? Would the risk involved outweigh the potential value of the information?

The third step should be the actual recruiting. How could you approach this potential informant? Do you have any leverage? What can you offer to the individual to gain his or her cooperation? Should you ask for input from the prosecutor's office before making any agreement?

The fourth stage is training the potential informant. This stage is important. You must spend some time making sure the informant knows what he or she can and can't do. Show them how the electronic surveillance equipment works, how to operate the tape or radio broadcast system. Have the informant turn the recorder on before the actual deployment.

Training should include minor tests to see if the informant understands and complies with his handler's instructions. These small tests should verify the honesty and credibility of the informant and should be done periodically at each of the stages.

The fifth stage is dispatching the informant to the target with specific instructions and clear expected goals you expect the informant to accomplish. Start with an easy small assignment and work up to the critical one. Technology only works when you don't need it. All mechanical systems are subject to failure. It is better to have the failure early on a lesser assignment.

The sixth and final stage is the termination of the informant's assignment. This includes a review and debriefing of the informant. Tell him or her that you can no longer provide the informant protection outside the specific assignment. The informant can't act alone, no matter how good the potential action might seem. In the federal system, it might involve "closing out" the informant and writing closure reports.

In gang cases, two or more informants might be involved in the same case. Don't disclose this fact to the informants involved. Cross check each informant's information against the other.

"An informant is not your friend!" This classic cop warning was issued to me many times by other detectives over my 33 years working for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The best narcotics and gang cops I knew were also good at informant development. The cops who were not often accused the good cops of being too friendly with snitches.

Your language preference and race have little to do with it. It is your people skills that make you the better gang cop. I have long time reliable informants who were former Mexican Mafia, Black Guerrilla Family, Aryan Brotherhood, and all types of street gang members.

To this day, I receive calls from my old informants, some from prison. After 15 or 20 years of looking out for one another, they may not be friends (as you think of it), but they have proved to be loyal allies in the gang war.

About the Author
Valdemar 1 Headshot
Sergeant (Ret.)
View Bio
Page 1 of 20
Next Page