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What is an Informant?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 15, 2024
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An informant is a person who furnishes useful material about illegal activities to law enforcement and other agencies. Law enforcement agents may plant informants or recruit people from within a criminal organization or community to become sources, depending on the situation and their needs. In exchange for providing information, this person receives immunity from prosecution for any activities he engages in while working for law enforcement, and may receive leniency for prior crimes as well. Related is the jailhouse informant, a person who talks to law enforcement or attorneys about other prisoners in the hopes of a reduced sentence.

The practice of using informants is ancient, and sometimes controversial. Law enforcement organizations rely on sources of internal information for major investigations. Often, insiders can allow officers to cast a wider net, catching people at the head of a criminal organization, as well as street-level operatives. Drug kingpins, for example, rarely deal on street corners. Prosecuting street dealers will not resolve a drug problem, while finding and jailing the head of the organization cuts off the head of the hydra, creating chaos and disorganization.

Some informants are undercover law enforcement officers who go into “deep cover” with an organization. They collect information by participating in daily activities and playing a role as a member. When they have enough material, a law enforcement bust can occur, with uniformed officers arresting members of the group and allowing the undercover officer to return to normal duty. Other informants are recruits from within an organization. Law enforcement, working with a district attorney, can promise leniency for people if they agree to return to an organization and convey knowledge about it to the police.

A confidential informant will have a handler who periodically arranges a meeting to debrief and collect data. These meetings are kept irregular to avoid attracting attention. Once the investigation is over, the informant may receive protection from reprisals in addition to forgiveness for criminal activities. In addition to using people to investigate clearly illegal activity like drug dealing and organized crime, law enforcement may also rely on informants to collect material about activist organizations, churches, and other groups which may not necessarily be doing anything illegal.

In a jail setting, the jailhouse informant may provide information about people with the goal of receiving credit for this at parole and sentencing hearings. These informants are not very reliable sources, as they have a clear incentive to provide anything they can, including false material.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By lluviaporos — On Jul 18, 2013

@browncoat - I don't think that police should use informants at all. They might think they have a person in their pocket, but informants can't be trusted. They are willing to betray their own organization, so who is to say they won't be willing to betray the police as well?

Not to mention that they are often offered a way to escape justice in return for compliance. I think that the laws should apply equally to everyone and that no one should have an exception. Doing some good doesn't wipe out the bad, particularly when that good is something done from fear, rather than a genuine inclination to change.

I just think about the victims of crime and how they must feel when they find out that the person who harmed them has been given a light sentence because he ratted out his friends.

By browncoat — On Jul 18, 2013

@pleonasm - I think there is much to admire in someone who manages to escape the gang system. And information leading to criminals being brought to justice is always a good thing.

But I think that most of the time, that information is being provided because someone is threatened, or vengeful or for some other dishonorable reason, not because the person really wants to, or is able to change.

By pleonasm — On Jul 17, 2013

I've been watching The Wire recently and I was very interested to discover that the character Omar is actually based on a real person. If anything, I've heard that Omar is a toned down version.

The real person used to rob drug dealers and tried to make sure that he never hurt innocent bystanders as well and he eventually became an informant for the police. He did, however, end up going to jail for murder, but he became an activist against gangs and continued to be one when he got out of prison.

I actually wish that more people like this, who manage to redeem themselves by helping police were held up as role models, because I think when you hold up someone as a role model who seems to have always been good it can actually discourage people who think that it's a matter of being born that way. I'd rather know that it was possible to change.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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