By Josh Lederman
TRENTON, N.J. — You've seen it on prime-time police dramas. Officers bust a drug-using high school student or low-level street dealer, then "flip" him - promising lighter prosecution in exchange for help in catching the "big fish."
But a three-year investigation, results of which were released Monday by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, found disjointed, confusing, and, in some cases, nonexistent policies on how law enforcement agencies in the state use confidential informants.
The report recommends that all officers who deal with confidential informants (CIs) be trained in a single, uniform policy.
The group said that has led to an overreliance on informants and diminished public faith in the justice system, as well as dismissals of tainted criminal cases.
Starting in January 2007, the ACLU interviewed several lawyers and community members, and requested law enforcement agencies' policies on how they use CIs.
Out of 93 municipal police departments contacted, 21 said they had no policy regarding CIs. Many county prosecutors and police departments said they go by the state attorney general's policy, but cited different manuals as that policy's source.
"Because of the fractured guidance, law enforcement officers who deal with CIs are very unclear about what these procedures ought to be," said Alexander Shalom, a policy lawyer for ACLU-NJ. "The potential for compromise of criminal investigations is extremely great."
The study's authors also interviewed 59 current and former police officers. Four in 10 said they were unaware of the statewide policy, while 65 percent said they didn't know what was in it.
Interviews also revealed instances where unreliable or underage informants were improperly used, and where criminals charged with serious drug charges were used to catch "little fish" - the opposite of the way the system is supposed to work.
The County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey did not respond to a request for comment on the report. The New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police said no members were available to answer questions on it.
During the ACLU's investigation, dozens of drug cases were tossed out by the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office because of the lack of proper documentation on how informants were used to build the cases.
Shalom cited the Morris County Prosecutor's Office as one agency already making good on the recommendations. Prosecutor Robert Bianchi has mandated that all officers who handle CIs be certified by his office, and that every officer in the county undergo yearly training.
"The results have been very positive," Bianchi said. "Most of these anecdotal stories you hear really are the result of a lack of education, as opposed to any nefarious activity of the police."
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Every informant in Morris County is now tracked by number and tracked geo-spatially on a map to help investigators in different jurisdictions connect the dots between the pieces of information provided.