Police `using dubious tactics' with informers

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The use of police informers is seriously flawed with officers breaking official rules and reverting to "legally and morally dubious tactics", according to unpublished research.

The success and "value for money" of paid informers has been exaggerated and has led to chief constables mistakenly promoting the increased use of "snouts", two studies have shown. The researchers also criticise the lack of training and supervision along with the secrecy with which many officers operate.

The report, Practice, Problems and Policy: Management Issues in the Police Use of Informers, completed in May, concludes: "The research demonstrates that not only does the practice of running informers often involve corner- cutting and breach of rules, but it also involves what many may view as ethical misconduct."

Researchers from Hull University questioned 289 officers and examined police records and prosecution files. They also carried out in-depth interviews with 11 professional informers. The highly critical report follows the furore caused earlier this month when it was revealed that the Metropolitan Police used a Jamaican Yardie criminal informant who brought another man into the country and went on to stage an armed robbery with him. The police later apologised for putting the public at risk by allowing an informer, Eaton Green, 27, to arrange for Rohan Thomas, 36, to come to Britain. It emerged that Tho mas was travelling on an illegal passport and had served 14 years for shooting a policeman. The studies by Colin Dunnighan and Clive Norris from Hull University's Department of Social Policy and Professional Studies - the second is called The Detective, the Snout and the Audit Commission - found examples of detectives abusing the use of informers.

This included allowing a criminal on the run to go free in return for information about offences that he had committed while illegally at large and a detective who used blackmail. The studies uncovered a "routine" failure by offices to tell the Crown Prosecution Service about the use of informers in cases which lead to a prosecution - thereby hiding potentially tarnished information and miscarriages of justice. In the 31 cases examined by the researchers in which informers had been known to be used, the police did not once mention that fact to the CPS. In a third of the cases examined, the informer was found to have played an active role in the crime.

The police are increasingly turning to informers because they believe they represent a highly cost-effective strategy for increasing the clear- up rate. For example, one police force made 214 payments totalling pounds 19,000 in nine months to informers which resulted in property valued at pounds 630,000 being seized or recovered, 349 arrests and 691 crimes cleared up.

This "value for money" argument has been encouraged by a recent Audit Commission report, Helping with Enquiries. However, the authors of the new studies argue that both the police and the Audit Commission ignore most of the hidden costs such as the money and large amount of time needed to cultivate and run informers and mount unsuccessful operations. When these extra cost are taken into account the "cost per arrest" - a calculation worked out using a formula drawn up by the Audit Commission - rises in one force from pounds 54 to pounds 697. While the "cost per crime cleared up" increases from pounds 27 to pounds 348.