Anthony Papa knows the burn of betrayal.
Today he’s an accomplished man—a published author and staff member at the Drug Policy Alliance—but in the mid-’80s, his life wasn’t in such a bright place.
In 1985, Papa was living in the Bronx with his wife and daughter. He was self-employed, installing car alarms. He was an avid bowler, but also an avid gambler. He went to bowling alleys and bet on other bowlers, and sometimes he was up, but at the start of 1985, he was down. Money was tight and his wife gave him an ultimatum; make rent or get out. One of his bowling buddies in Westchester stepped in, seemingly to save the day.
“He asked me if I wanted to make a fast buck. All I had to do was deliver an envelope to Mount Vernon.”
After some nerves and reconsiderations, Papa eventually went through and delivered the goods to a mysterious man in a tow truck.
“I walked into a bust,” he said. The bowling buddy who’d “helped” him was already in legal hot water himself, “so the more people he got involved, the less time he got,” Papa recalled.
“He was setting up all his friends, people who weren’t even doing drugs.” Papa had dabbled in drugs, but he was by no means a drug dealer—just a desperate man who was out of options.
After his arrest, Papa was offered the chance to do what his bowling buddy did and become a confidential informant in exchange for a reduced sentence.
“I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I knew at that point that I would just get deeper in the hole.” Instead, he took his case to trial and ended up with two sentences of 15 to life under New York’s notorious Rockefeller drug laws. He served 12 years before he was granted clemency by Gov. George Pataki.
Although today he’s doing well, the events that led to Papa’s arrest are not uncommon. Every day, confidential police informants are used to make drug busts. Sometimes they’re snagging bigger dealers, but sometimes—as in Papa’s case—they’re setting up bit players for big arrests.
The latter scenario is something that 60 Minutes focused on in a December 2015 segment with Lesley Stahl. The in-depth investigation looked at some of the tragic outcomes when the use of confidential informants doesn’t go as planned.
The show highlighted the cases of Andrew Sadek and Rachel Hoffman, both college students who were arrested with small amounts of drugs and pressured to work as confidential informants. Both ended up dead. Sadek was missing for months before he was found near a river, shot in the head. His backpack was weighted down with rocks. Hoffman was shot five times and dumped in a ditch. Both were college students with bright futures.
Although 60 Minutes used examples like those to outline the problematic nature of using confidential informants, the show didn’t include stories like Papa’s. To be more specific, the youth profiled in the show were all white.
Getting data about the demographics of confidential informants is difficult, to say the least. In fact, it’s hard to even get a good handle on how many confidential informants are used every year.
“By their nature, you’re not supposed to know who they are, so it’s very hard to say how much they’re actually used,” said Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Nsombi Lambright, previous executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi and current executive director of One Voice, said that anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of confidential informants are minorities.
“Overwhelmingly we’ve seen that the use of confidential informants is in poor and African American communities. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen in other communities, but that is where we’ve seen the overwhelming use just because of the simplicity of entering into certain communities,” she said.
Typically, more privileged communities are more likely to have access to legal resources that prevent them from seriously considering offers to work as a confidential informant.
“I think that reason would have us extrapolate that people who are used as confidential informants are the most vulnerable—if you have a good lawyer, you’re probably not going to be a confidential informant,” said Bandele. “It’s very hard to quantify that or try to, but it’s not an unfair leap to think that somebody with wherewithal doesn’t need to be put in a position where they need to put their life at risk—and that’s about race and class.”
By way of example, Bandele pointed to the story of Shelley “Treasure” Hilliard. Hilliard, a black trans teen, was collared by Detroit police for half an ounce of marijuana. As a trans woman, the prospect of doing time and being housed in a men’s facility was understandably terrifying. So Hilliard agreed to become a confidential informant, hoping—like Hoffman and Sadek—to avoid time behind bars. But things went wrong when police leaked her name, and soon the teen went missing.
In November 2011, her burned torso was identified by investigators. “She was burned and hacked up and spread across the city,” Bandele lamented.
“She was trans, she was poor, she was black—it was a perfect storm of stigma and prejudice. It was a conflation of all these things that put her in a vulnerable position.”
The thing is, even if everything had worked out well, even if police hadn’t leaked her name, there’s still cause for concern on at least a few levels. For one, not everyone who works as a confidential informant actually manages to avoid prison time.
Papa said that the man who set him up ended up serving three years. Predictably, if someone is known as a confidential informant, prison becomes a lot more difficult.
“Once you get that label as a snitch, you’re dead,” he said. “You go to prison and they find out, you’re finished. You have to check into protective custody or always look over your shoulder. There’s nowhere to run in prison.” Protective custody typically means 22 to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, so it may be safer than general population, but it’s mental torture.
Sometimes, confidential informants end up doing time because they don’t come up with enough information or don’t participate in enough busts. Other times, Lambright said, they get arrested on completely separate charges or the prosecuting attorney doesn’t honor the agreement. Even in a best-case scenario, where no names are leaked and no one is injured, confidential informants don’t necessarily get off scot-free.
A second problem with confidential informants is reliability.
“If somebody is facing time themselves, then of course they’ll do anything to get a reduction in time,” said Lambright. That was a problem the New Jersey ACLU outlined in a 2011 report examining the use of confidential informants in the Garden State.
“Police survey responses and community interviews indicate that police sometimes take CIs at their word without first carefully and independently corroborating the veracity of their statements before attempting to make an arrest,” the report notes. “Incentives offered to CIs, including leniency in their own criminal cases, increase the risk that CIs will provide unreliable information. The prevalent and repeated use of drug-addicted civilians as CIs increases the risk that the information they provide may be unreliable.”
According to the ACLU, unreliable testimony from informants is “one of the largest sources of wrongful convictions in the country.”
Part of the reason this happens is simply a lack of oversight. As the 60 Minutes segment pointed out, there’s typically no real training for the informants who are essentially being sent out to do police work.
As the New Jersey ACLU outlined, informants in the Garden State are often not properly registered and agreements are not set out in writing as they should be, as per a mandate from the state’s Attorney General. In fact, the report found that 44.6% of law enforcement personnel surveyed did not even know the Attorney General had a policy regarding the use of confidential informants.
When the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report on confidential informants in September 2015, they found a similar lack of oversight and a lack of sufficient policies for the federal agencies examined.
Although the use of confidential informants presents clear problems, Lambright said that there aren’t a lot of groups specifically focusing on activism around the issue of confidential informants, even though some advocacy organizations make it part of a drug reform platform.
One organization that has been very clear about its stance on confidential informants is the ACLU. On its website, the organization outlines some changes that could make the use of informants less problematic. Those changes include everything from requiring corroboration to improve informant reliability, broadening data collection to better evaluate the efficacy of using informants, and limiting the use of informants to serious crimes instead of non-violent drug offenses.
For Papa, that’s still not enough.
“It should be banned,” he said. “People should not be threatened or deals made based on putting other people in dangerous situations.”
“To police, it’s acceptable when really it’s not.”
This story originally appeared on The Fix.