Photo of Bubbles on ‘The Wire’ via HBO
If you get popped for a low- or mid-level drug crime, there’s always a chance a detective might talk to you about becoming a confidential informant (CI). Maybe it’s participating in controlled buys in exchange for your charges getting reduced—or even dropped. That might help you keep your job, hang onto your college loans, and avoid handing over your life savings to a fancy lawyer. But it could also mean you’re considered a "rat" or a "snitch," and even if you don’t get called out for it (or face reprisal), you’d have to live with that.
So what does life actually look like after making that leap, and what’s the recruiting process like? We talked to a narcotics detective at a police department in suburban Philadelphia—who spoke on condition of anonymity due to his ongoing undercover drug operations focused primarily on heroin and opioid dealers—about how he cultivates and works with confidential informants, and what he really thinks about the practice.
VICE: How do you first go about getting someone to be a CI?
We always have to meet face to face—we are not talking on the phone. We have to be able to trust each other. They have to be able to trust me to have their back, and I have to be able to trust them to tell them some stuff, like who I might be [investigating]. The first thing I ask them is, "Are you friends with [the dealer)]?" Because you can’t ask someone to do their friend. They’ve been friends with that guy ten years; they just met me. I can’t trust them with my operation. Also, if you’re buying drugs off somebody that only has five customers, I can’t do it. They’re gonna figure out pretty quick who it probably is. I’ve had people sit here, and they’re nervous wrecks, and I’ve had to say, "If you’re nervous talking to me, you can’t go buy drugs. I can’t have you do it."
If you got a CI who’s been buying weed, you can’t have them go buy heroin. With heroin, you gotta go gradual. If you’ve only been buying two bags, you can’t suddenly ask for a bundle. And with someone who’s been through recovery, can I put heroin in your hand without you wanting to use? If I get you using heroin again, that’s no good. The big thing with me is being honest when I talk to [potential CIs]. I have a very big issue with getting a CI burned. I’ve never had a CI caught, and I tell them that. I can’t tell someone to trust me with their life, basically, if I’ve got people caught. I usually tell them, "I’ve had people almost get caught, but that’s because they talked about it with someone else. So that’s their fault, not mine."
What do they ask you when you propose they become a CI?
The very first thing they wanna know is, "Are you gonna use my name? Is my name gonna be in the search warrant?" No. They’ll never be identified. I’ve never had a CI have to testify. I don’t think that’s ever not been the first question.
I’ve also had people ask, "Would you do it?"
I think it depends. One [potential CI] was 22, and their dad was sitting there with them while I was talking to them about it, and [the dad] asked me if I would do it. I said to him, "If I was 22-year-old me? No, I don’t do it."
Because the 22-year-old me doesn’t have a wife and kids. Can I let my mistake cause somebody else some problems? Now that I have a wife and kids, can I afford to go to jail for ten years? Twenty-two-year-old me can go to jail for ten years. I’ll say to them, "Listen, I’ve got a brother about your age, and if he said, ‘Yo, I did this and the cops want me to do this,’ I would tell him no." I’m brutally honest about it.
How do you usually get CIs to finally agree to do it?
I can’t force them to do it. They can walk right out the door if they want. But I usually say two things. I say, "Are you willing to let this charge jeopardize your future? If you are, then you don’t need to talk to me, and you don’t need to do this." But the other thing I tell them is, "Look, [your dealer] is gonna get arrested anyway. It might be three months from now, but I’m already looking at him. He’s gonna get arrested, do you wanna get the credit for it?" I tell them, "I’m not saying you have to do anything, but you’re gonna read about him getting arrested, and you’re gonna say, ‘Dammit, I coulda got a deal.’"
That’s usually a good selling point.
So if I agree to be a CI, how many times do I have to do it?
It depends. I try not to give them a number. If I say, "We’re gonna need you five times," then the fifth time they might tip off the dealer. I usually give them a window. So if it’s June, I’ll say, "We can probably wrap this up by August."
Do you pay CIs?
Not that much. We usually try to cover your gas if you’re coming from out of the area. The DEA pays good, but not local cops.
What do you say to CIs as far as coaching them up for a controlled buy?
I try not to do any coaching, really. I tell them, "It’s business as usual. Pretend I didn’t give you the money. However long you’re usually in there, take that time. If you’re usually in there five minutes, stay in there five minutes. If you’re in there ten, stay ten. Do everything you normally do, unless you do the drugs there." I can’t have them driving after using heroin, so my CI has to be somebody who just buys and leaves. Or they have to tell (the dealer) they’re worried about getting a DUI.
Do you make CIs wear a wire?
Nah. If we really needed to, I guess we could get a pin camera on them—although we’ve never done that—but not a wire. There are probably [police departments] that are way more likely to do that, but we’re just not one of them. I’d much rather do the buy myself—just introduce me to the dealer—rather than put someone in jeopardy of getting caught wearing a wire or a camera.
How do you protect CIs?
Well, we really don’t do buy-busts. Certain [police departments] do; I don’t like doin’ ’em. When you do a buy-bust, somebody set somebody up, and if it’s you and the dealer, no matter how good you are, that dealer’s gonna know somebody set him up, and it certainly wasn’t himself. I don’t do search warrants right after the CI bought. I try to let other customers get in there after, so it looks better for the CI. We won’t do [a controlled buy out of view of police] if it’s a violent guy. If it’s a [dealer] with a gun, we might not do it. We’ve sent CIs into houses where we knew the guy had a gun, but they’ve known each other for a while. That CI had been buying off him for ten years. If you’re usually in there for five minutes and you’re in there for 20, we’re kicking the door in. If a CI texts me and says [the dealer] suddenly changed [the buy] location, I’ll call right away and ask the CI if they’ve ever done that before. If no, then it’s off. I’m not sending someone into a bad situation. I can’t do it. It would be different if it was me going in there, but I can’t send you in there. It’s bad business.
Without sounding conceited, I think I’m careful enough to where I won’t put them in a bad situation. And I’m not speaking for every other cop in this area. I’ve had people say to me, "Such-and-such police department just got somebody burned." Well, I’m not that police department.
When you meet with the CI after the buy, do they ever tell you they think the dealer’s onto them?
Nah. They usually say, "That was a lot easier than I thought." A dealer’s not gonna agree to sell to you if he thinks you’re working for us. But the CI needs to see that for themselves. They’re very protected.
Aside from any fear of getting caught, CIs must also feel pretty guilty deep down for doing it, huh?
Mmhmm, for the most part. If they haven’t been done wrong by the drug dealer, they’re gonna feel like a rat.
How do you feel about them? Do you consider them rats?
If they’ve been caught, are they tattling? Yeah, they are. It’s easy to say, "That guy’s a rat." But if that guy has a little kid and that guy’s making 85 grand a year, it’s easy to say that guy’s a rat and truth be told he probably is, but did he rat to save his family? It’s not just 18-year-old kids who don’t wanna get in trouble. Some of these people, they’re 40 years old with a family, and they have a lot to lose. Bottom line, are they technically still a rat? Yeah.
Can you make good drug arrests without having to use CIs?
Yes, but it would be so much harder. I would have no problem buying. I would actually prefer it, to be completely honest with you, but this police department doesn’t want me doing that very much. I don’t have a problem going to a drug dealer’s house. I really don’t. But with me, I need an introduction, all of that. It’s just so much easier for a CI. When you have controlled buys with CIs, they’re rock-solid cases—any DA will tell you that. When you get a buy, it’s great. And we do a couple buys [before an arrest]. When we do a buy and we recover buy-money, what’s their argument?
One [dealer], he read the search warrant, and he told [his two co-conspirators] on the way to jail, "Take whatever deal they give you, they got us, they got controlled buys." Dealers know that.
So you’re basically just trying to make it easier on yourself.
Some people might say that’s pretty shitty, that a cop should just do better police work instead of putting people in the position of having to be a CI.
They might be right. I’m not saying they’re wrong. I need a better case, and that controlled buy gets me a better case. I’ve cut many breaks. Many breaks. I’ve told many people, "You don’t have to work for me; you can leave right now, and we still might be able to work this all out." And we have. But in some cases you might have to help us, and it’s a lot better for you in the long run if you do.
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