One of my favorite television lines came from Norm, the barstool-sitting character played by George Wendt in the comedy series "Cheers." Speaking about his wife, Norm said, "Women…. Can't live with ‘em. Pass the beer nuts." I laughed out loud, but stopped abruptly when my wife gave me "The Look."
A modified version of the original statement is accurate when referring to informants used by the police. “Informants: Can’t live with ‘em, and the police can’t live without ‘em.”
There are basically three kinds of informants. The first is a concerned citizen who comes forward with information with no expectation of getting anything in return except being a good citizen.
The second kind of informant is one who has been arrested for a crime and is “working off the beef.” This means the government will not prosecute the person, or will agree to a lighter sentence if that person delivers other, usually bigger, crooks. In other words, these informants are supplying information to save their own skin.
When I worked undercover narcotics in 1971 my boss and the DA made a deal with a doper facing jail time. If the guy could orchestrate 10 direct drug sales to me his problems would go away (until his next arrest). He agreed, and became an informant. The informant would introduce me to narcotic dealers and tell them, “This is my buddy Tom.
He’s from Detroit and he needs some junk (heroin). He’s cool.”
The informant delivered the 10 hand-to-hand sale transactions and he was off the hook. I paid the money and they gave me the dope. We let the buys go through with no immediate arrests. A few months later I had logged many more buys using different informants and we obtained grand jury indictments. We arrested the sellers months later.
The third kind of informant is one who does it for money. When I first heard this happened I was appalled. Why would we pay a crook to rat out his acquaintances? Simple. It worked.
If these guys needed money they would come to us and offer their services. We even paid for a tooth extraction for an informant who had no money but had a toothache.
There are many potential pitfalls when dealing with informants. For example, if they would sell out their friends, how do you think they felt about the police? We had to keep them on a short leash to make sure they weren’t working both sides of the street. I was lucky because the informants I dealt with turned out to be okay.
Other cops were not so lucky. Some engaged in sexual liaisons. One cop I knew very well was also dipping into the evidence, taking some before logging it into property. Not only was he doing that, but he was having an affair with a female informant. When she was arrested by another agency she gave up her cop-boyfriend and his drug involvement before they finished putting the cuffs on her. The cop went to prison.
Dealing with informants was a risky business. You had to watch them closely, but you also had to trust them, to a certain extent.
I worked undercover as a rookie because I had experience in Flint, Mich and no one in the area knew me. My boss scared the heck out of one of my informants. Sgt. Gil Bretsch said, “If anything happens to Tom I will hunt you down and kill you. I don’t care if I have to go to Africa or Egypt, I’ll find you and kill you.” That certainly got his attention, although I don’t think Bretsch would have gone to Egypt.
Basinski is a former Chula Vista police officer.