Research led three counties to undertake changes to policies,
adding to ACLU-NJ's efforts to reform NJ's criminal justice system
New York, NY, June 28, 2011– The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project have released a study today, authored by John Jay College of Criminal Justice faculty who investigated how closely the use of confidential informants conformed to New Jersey policy. The study revealed inconsistent policies governing the use of confidential informants at all levels of government, which have led to violations of informants' rights and compromises in the integrity of criminal investigations.
"Because the practice of using informants in criminal investigations has such a long history with support from state laws and judicial decisions, we were surprised to find that the policy governing informant use in the state is so disorganized," said Professor Delores Jones-Brown, lead author of the report and director of John Jay College's Center on Race, Crime and Justice. "Though our sample size was small, it was disturbing to find that more than half of the officers surveyed were unclear about the requirements for the proper use of informants."
"One of the most glaring findings was the lack of training for officers. This is tantamount to being unprepared, and when officers are unprepared, they and their agency are vulnerable to different types of harm; in the officers' case, they unnecessarily assume too much personal risk," noted Dr. Jon Shane, co-author of the report. "By failing to supply training, police agencies are setting themselves and their officers up for an organizational accident; training can minimize the likelihood of an accident. Because of the downside potential, police departments have to prioritize policy development and training in a manner similar to firearms to ensure all facets of informant use are covered so the officers, the agency and the public are as safe as possible."
Police departments across the country have come to rely on informants as a primary way to pursue drug investigations, but their improper use has led to serious problems. After seeing the sometimes-tragic outcomes in other states, including the deaths of innocent people, the ACLU-NJ in 2007 began to look into New Jersey's handling of informants, a group frequently utilized in law enforcement but rarely reported on in larger society. In some of those national cases, confidential informants gave false information under pressure, resulting in police busts of innocent people with guns drawn, sometimes with tragic results such as in the case of Kathryn Johnson, or false arrests, such as in the case of people in Tulia, Texas. In other past cases, police departments have sent confidential informants into dangerous situations they never would have encountered otherwise, such as in the case of Rachel Hoffman.
To understand the real-life use of informants in New Jersey, the report – which analyzed information and perspectives provided by both law enforcement and citizens - sheds light for the first time on how New Jersey law enforcement agencies use confidential informants. "I was personally surprised to hear from community members how pervasive the use of informants is in certain communities, mainly urban communities, economically distressed communities and communities of color," said Dr. Jones-Brown, who is also a former Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor and conducted the civilian interviews. "As described by one community respondent, 'informing is like the game of tag, if you get arrested, then you are it'."
The researchers discovered that some departments throughout New Jersey failed to put agreements in writing, circumvented search warrant requirements, used juveniles improperly, and insufficiently checked the reliability of information given by confidential informants, who can be motivated by financial incentives or fear of prosecution, among other reasons, to fabricate information. Worse, many departments reported their belief that no policies existed, including the mandatory protocols issued by the Attorney General. Other departments believed they were merely advisory. In Lower Township, Cape May County, the mishandling of confidential informants resulted in two waves of case dismissals since research for the study began. In a 2010 Sussex County case, an informant fabricated evidence (giving police crushed drywall and claiming it was cocaine he bought from local dealers), with devastating consequences for those falsely accused of selling drugs.
The study's authors, Dr. Jones-Brown and Dr. Jon Shane, who is also a retired captain from the Newark, NJ Police Department, issued recommendations to create uniform policies at all levels and to thoroughly train officers and prosecutors. Based on their recommendations, law enforcement agencies should always receive prosecutors' approval before using a CI (who must be registered with the state), have written and signed agreements between law enforcement and the CI, institute processes to approve or deny the use of informants, develop a protocol for establishing an informant's reliability, strictly limit the use of minors, impose strict recordkeeping rules, and, above all, train officers regularly.
In response to the report, at least three New Jersey counties – Morris, Salem and Cumberland – have already begun to reform their policies, starting after their review of an early draft.
"We couldn't be happier to see some of the changes taking place in these counties," said Deborah Jacobs, Executive Director for the ACLU of New Jersey. "We hope to work collaboratively with more counties, and the Attorney General, to see New Jersey adopt the most professional and effective practices for dealing with confidential informants."
The report adds to a spate of recent reforms in New Jersey prompted by ACLU-NJ advocacy. In May, eight months after the ACLU-NJ petitioned the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of systemic abuse by the Newark Police Department, the federal agency announced it would come to the city. Just days before that announcement, New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow announced new reforms to the state's internal affairs policy based on the ACLU-NJ's recommendations, which will go into effect in July.
The ACLU-NJ's report on confidential informants can be found online at http://www.aclu-nj.org/theissues/policepractices/confidentialinformantsinnj.htm as well as more information relating to reforms of police in Newark, in Camden and the rest of the state.
The Center on Race, Crime and Justice is a multifaceted and multidisciplinary entity for exploring critical issues at the intersection of race / ethnicity, crime and justice. Through a visiting scholars program, community partnerships and collaborative efforts within the College and across City University, the Center sponsors activities and conducts funded research aimed at addressing the complex questions that plague our understanding of crime and justice in a diverse society. The Center's primary mission is to engage in activities that promote equity in justice.
Established in 1964, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York is an international leader in educating for justice. It offers a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to upwards of 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nations. In teaching, scholarship and research, the College approaches justice as an applied art and science in service to society and as an ongoing conversation about fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit www.jjay.cuny.edu.