By Dean Dabney & Richard Tewksbury, authors of Speaking Truth to Power: Confidential Informants and Police Investigations
In the world of police intelligence the ideas of teaching, practice and research are all critically important for an integrated approach to one of the foundational activities that sets the gears of the criminal justice machine in motion. One powerful and increasingly relied upon component of the law enforcement toolkit for gathering of intelligence is the use of confidential informants. The practice is widely acknowledged but plagued by a dearth of research and teaching about the issue. When most Americans think of confidential informants (or, “snitches”) they immediately envision media-inspired/perpetuated stereotypes and images. Who are informants, how they work, with whom they work, and when, where and why the police employ informants are all issues about which people primarily “learn” via entertainment media. Are those images correct? Maybe, but maybe not. Unfortunately, we have a paucity of research about the topic.
In fact, unfortunately we have very little research on how police gather information, regardless of the means. As scholars we have done a good job examining how the police use information in investigations, prevention programs and solving crimes. But, how information is gathered is largely beyond the view of social scientists. This is especially crucial in the War on Drugs, where information gathering is critical for any and all of our “successes”.
This is because it is a secretive activity, and there is a need for such activities to be at least somewhat undercover for them to be effective. However, that argument can be made for many types of activities, by many types of actors – both inside and outside the criminal justice system. The fact is that we do have knowledge about all kinds of “hidden” aspects of many social activities. In fact, there is no reason we cannot, or should not, study these realms. The question becomes why we do not investigate police intelligence gathering more frequently and in more depth and detail?
The argument that scholars are “kept out” would be easy to make, and many can offer stories of their own efforts to gain access to data but being thwarted in their efforts. But, this is not to say that there is a police conspiracy to keep researchers out. As our own experiences showed, access, and even acceptance, inside the policing world is achievable. The key is to find the right “spot” for making entry. If we find receptive individuals and organizations and we approach the issue in an open and unbiased way, it can be done.
Scholars are not systematically and universally excluded from studying police and their activities from the inside. There are opportunities, but as scholars we need to seek, find and perhaps most importantly nurture relationships that can facilitate our ability to “see it from the inside”. How can we truly “see it from the inside”? In order to do so, we need to actually physically be inside, and then stay there. We need to actually talk to police, community members, and even offenders. We need to meet the people who do the gathering of information, and we need to see them actually do it. We need to understand how the experience feels, how it rewards and frustrates, and what can be done when unanticipated obstacles arise. In short, we need qualitative, ethnographic research on the topic.
The practice of law enforcement intelligence gathering and use of confidential informants is a practice that is common, valuable but severely lacking in research. Without research on the topic we also have nothing to teach about the topic, except for what is common in our entertainment media. In this way the issue of police intelligence and use of confidential informants is a prime example of the need to integrate teaching, practice and research. As we stand now without that integration – and without quality ethnographic investigations — we are left with no knowledge, and no promises of gaining knowledge to teach about a practice. Only with the dedication of pioneering scholars will we be able to overcome our dearth of knowledge and learn how to better manage our law enforcement practices.
See Dean Dabney at: ACJS’s Author Meets Critic Session
Wednesday, March 22nd
11:00 am to 12:15 pm
Muehlebach Tower: Floor Trianon Level – Lido
Rod Brunson, Rutgers University
Scott Decker, Arizona State University
William Wells, Sam Houston State University
Dean A. Dabney is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University.
Richard Tewksbury is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Louisville.