Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol Urges Reform in Police Use of Confidential Informants

Arrests of Brooklyn South narcotics detectives highlights need for transparency and oversight
January 28, 2008
Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol is advocating for more oversight and transparency in what is the largely unregulated practice of police use of confidential informants. Although the Assemblyman has had legislation submitted that would regulate and study this practice since 2006, the issue has come under scrutiny after last week’s arrest of four narcotics officers and suspension of six more in South Brooklyn. The officers are accused of paying their confidential informants with the illegal drugs seized in the arrests of the individuals fingered by those informants. This scandal has forced the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office to dismiss over 150 cases.

“No one is trying to stop the practice of using confidential informants. We understand that they can be vital in fighting crime and are an enormous time saver for both police and prosecutors,” said Assemblyman Lentol. “However we are trying to ensure that when they are used it is truly in the best interest of the community and that society is able to have some modicum of oversight and transparency.”

No one knows how often this practice is used or even how it is used. Assemblyman Lentol’s legislation, which was highlighted in a recent New York Times Story, would serve as a jumping off point to study this practice. In addition to putting in some much needed regulations, it compiles annual statistics about the use of informants so that judges, legislators and law enforcement have the tools and information they need to properly regulate this practice.

“This is just a first step. Because this practice is largely done behind closed doors with no one overseeing it, it is next to impossible to properly regulate it,” said Assemblyman Lentol. “My bill will collect the information we need to institute real reform and ensure that we are properly protecting all of the parties involved.”

Research into this practice, which is largely concentrated in inner-city minority communities, has compared it with the pervasive informant culture in East Germany during communism.

“No one knew who to trust. People even informed on friends and family, destroying the social fabric and dividing communities and neighborhoods,” lamented Assemblyman Lentol. “I want to make sure that this practice is only being used to protect the community.”

Police routinely overlook the crimes committed by their confidential informants.

“We need to make sure that the crimes we are able to prosecute because of CIs are more important than the ones the police routinely overlook in exchange for information,” said Assemblyman Lentol. The Assemblyman’s bill puts limits on what crimes can be overlooked when turning someone into a confidential informant.

“For example, we don’t want people who commit violent crimes to be permitted to continue walking the streets just because they may be able to give the police information,” the Assemblyman explained. “We also have to recognize that CIs aren’t making decisions based on public safety,” he said. “They are much more likely to inform on rival drug dealers, the person they owe money to or the person who is dating their ex-girlfriend. It is high time that someone was put in a position to monitor this situation.”

“I will be holding public hearings into this issue, so that we can begin to make sure that this practice is not injuring the integrity of the police or the social fabric of the community. We all want to see the bad guys in prison, I’m just not sure that the way police currently use CIs is accomplishing that,” concluded Assemblyman Lentol.