7 ways big data is helping police manage confidential informants

Several high-profile civil cases and consent decrees have forced agencies to modernize the way they handle their confidential informants

In his 25 years as a captain with the New Jersey State Police, Steve Serrao had extensive dealings with confidential informants, including cultivating and working them as an intelligence officer, protecting them as they became official government witnesses, and even relocating them after they’d testified for the State. 

At one point in his career, Serrao was involved in managing the confidential informant program for the NJSP Intelligence Bureau (he now serves as a law enforcement consultant at SAS, a leading analytics software and services provider).

“We had several thousand documented informants in our files,” Serrao explained, “of which roughly 400 were being contacted and paid or remunerated in some way every day. We used a very crude paper-based system to manage the informant contacts and a slightly less crude Excel spreadsheet to manage payments made to them.”

SAS, a leading analytics software and services provider, can provide police agencies with a comprehensive system that reduces risk and provides operational and managerial oversight of your confidential informant program. (AP Image)
SAS, a leading analytics software and services provider, can provide police agencies with a comprehensive system that reduces risk and provides operational and managerial oversight of your confidential informant program. (AP Image)

Needless to say, the system was vulnerable to mistakes and mismanagement. Further, it provided little (if any) capacity for measuring an informant’s or a handler’s risk and/or efficacy.

The International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts hosts a LinkedIn group called “Law enforcement confidential informants and intelligence,” in which a discussion formed about 

the appropriate, safe, and effective use of confidential informants in law enforcement. In that dialogue, Serrao noticed what he believes to be several important issues: 

•    “Effectiveness will be highly dependent on the handler”
•    ‘…undercover ops in policing….appears that it's a very mixed bag, largely due to training and the inherent risks associated with law enforcement…”
•    “…Law enforcement officer(s)  appear to receive little, if any training in most departments”
•    “…trust between an operative and their handler is of prime importance to the success of missions, a trust that should never be betrayed…”
•    “…Effectiveness can be measured in many ways and I would posit that credible, actionable intelligence is the pinnacle of such effectiveness…”

“The one thing I saw no mention of is the use of modern sophisticated technology to deal with most — if not all — of those issues,” Serrao explained.

“Maybe that’s because a simple search of the Internet reveals only a handful of — and I’m being kind, because there are actually only two — companies providing technology solutions that manage the entire lifecycle of confidential informants.” 

Serrao travels around the world on behalf of SAS — even as he’s supporting current customers, he’s always seeking new ones — and he lamented that when he visits agencies not yet in the SAS client roster, he often finds the usual suspects of index cards, file folders and some sort of home-grown Excel spreadsheet or (gasp!) Access database.

“I’m constantly amazed to find that many police departments are still using rudimentary processes to manage their confidential informants. Recently, I was shocked to hear a ranking member of a large metropolitan police force tell me that there was no need to use technology to manage informants — ‘the less information the better’,” Serrao was told. “That might be the most naïve approach I’ve ever heard about managing this inherently risky part of policing.”

Serrao believes two questions must be asked and answered:

1. How much is the department willing to pay out in lawsuits when things go wrong? 
2. How many cops need to be indicted before a proactive approach is taken to deal with the problem?

“Just look at the multi-million dollar payouts reported in the media over the past few years or the several recent high-profile civil cases and consent decrees forcing agencies to modernize the way they handle informants,” Serrao said. 

“Compare that against the relatively small amount of money your agency could pay upfront to acquire a comprehensive system that reduces risk and provides operational and managerial oversight of your confidential informant program. Informants will still give you problems, but you will be able to reduce risk and minimize lawsuits by demonstrating that you had a program in place to avoid, detect and prevent illegal and/or aberrant behavior by your officers and informants.”

Serrao’s advice to law enforcement leadership is to look at the department’s policy regarding confidential informants, look at their CALEA certification, and then look at the Internet for companies providing solutions.  

“You will most likely learn that your policy may be outdated, your CALEA certification may be in jeopardy and your choices for a solution are very limited,” Serrao quipped. 

Serrao thinks his company has the ability to help agencies resolve those issues. He suggests that when looking at SAS and other solutions out there addressing the management and analytics of confidential informants, police leaders should consider seven key components: 

1. Security, both of information and access
2. Entity deconfliction and identity disambiguation
3. Management of contacts
4. Management of payments
5. Ability to Activate, deactivate and render informants undesirable
6. Ability to change handler information
7. Ability to run across your agencies wide area network

“Agencies that follow this path will reduce risk and, for the first time, be able to measure the results of their confidential informant program,” Serrao concluded. 

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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