Confidential Informants: Inherently Trustworthy Until They're Not
from the all-logic-and-consistency-must-be-ignored dept
The Tampa Police Department has suddenly been put in a very uncomfortable situation. On May 27, officers executed a raid on an alleged drug dealer. By the time it was done, one suspect had been killed by the SWAT team and only $2 worth of marijuana — 0.2 grams — had been recovered.
It was a righteous kill. Letting themselves in through an unlocked door after no one answered their knock, the SWAT team came across Jason Westcott in his bedroom. Westcott had a gun (a legally-owned one) which he raised when the cops came crashing through the door. He was shot multiple times. Open/shut. Officers in danger, suspect with weapon, etc.
The problem is Jason Westcott was no drug dealer. The miniscule amount of drugs recovered should have made that apparent. Of course, this was all after the fact. The house had already been raided and Westcott was already dead.
The confidential informant that tipped to the cops to Westcott’s “drug dealing” outed himself after hearing about Westcott’s death. Ryan “Bodie” Coogle approached the Tampa Bay Times to tell his story, apparently feeling responsible for Westcott being killed. He told the paper the “tip” he passed on to the Tampa PD was a lie. In fact, many of the tips he had passed on were lies.
A 50-year-old felon and drug addict, Coogle was the principal Tampa Police Department informer against at least five suspects this year. He conducted nine undercover operations. In their probable-cause affidavits, his handlers called him reliable. Even Tampa’s police chief praised his “track record.”
Coogle said they were all wrong. He said he repeatedly lied about suspects, stole drugs he bought on the public’s dime and conspired to falsify drug deals.
Coogle’s statements indicate he set the whole thing up to appease his handlers. Westcott was no dealer. He sold a bit here and there to friends but that wasn’t enough for the PD, which was looking for high-profile busts. So, he cooked up a story about Westcott and a New York heroin connection. That he was unable to purchase any heroin from the non-dealer was of little concern to the police.
Coogle pointed out this was hardly unusual behavior. Other cases saw him falsifying the amount purchased to help officers justify the use of manpower. And everything Coogle offered was used in affidavits to secure search warrants, which were then deployed to bust dealers who weren’t dealers.
Now, Coogle very definitely should not be trusted. He asserts that he routinely lied to the police but now is telling nothing but the truth when he discusses his prior lies. Other statements from those who have interacted with Coogle portray him as pathological.
And yet, the Tampa PD trusted him. It built cases using his depictions of drug purchases. Coogle was never made to wear a wire. Everything he told police was hearsay. But it was “truthful” enough. The cops trusted Coogle because he gave the cops what they wanted. They found him completely credible… right up until they didn’t.
A CI turning on his handlers is unusual. And there’s really no way for the department that portrayed him as a trustworthy source to distance itself without looking thoroughly hypocritical. But departments do it anyway, because the reputation of police officers is easily repaired, especially when it’s continually patched by public deference, good faith exceptions and the ever-present benefit of a doubt. If a CI turns, he’s swiftly burned to the ground.
The police playbook is simple, [Scott] Greenfield said: Disavow the snitch. He said cops typically prevail because of informers’ endemic credibility problems, even when the spectacle of officers attacking their own snitches’ truthfulness looks incongruous.
“These are the same guys who are so very truthful that we put other people in life-threatening situations based on what they say,” Greenfield said, describing the typical police response. “When the snitch turns, they’re a pathological liar and we shouldn’t pay attention.”
The Tampa PD followed the playbook completely. This CI, who was so instrumental in previous drug cases thanks to his “honest” undercover work, is suddenly a pathological liar who just now began lying pathologically.
In an interview with the Times several weeks after Coogle met with federal investigators, Castor and her chief spokeswoman, McElroy, savaged the credibility of their one-time “reliable informant.” But only to a point.
They said they still believed the information he had fed to narcotics detectives about Westcott. They said it was only his recantation and accusations against his handlers that were untrue.
“You really think that this guy is in a position to question the integrity of police officers?” McElroy said. “A C.I.? Really? I mean, come on, C.I.’s are not upstanding citizens. It’s a joke.”
And yet, the police had no problem granting this non-upstanding citizen credibility when it was useful to them.
When can CI’s no longer be trusted? Well, it’s apparently when their lies no longer aid the officers they work for. Cue cop spokesperson statement comprised of hubris, obtuseness and hypocrisy.
“A C.I. is credible, and their information is verifiable, until they no longer are,” McElroy said.
Astounding. Honest when useful. Dishonest when not. If the PD wants to treat Coogle as though he were the most honest man who ever snitched right up until he started talking to the local newspaper, fine. But it should be willing to open up the files of every investigation completed with his assistance to the public — especially those convicted using information provided by Coogle.
The department resolutely maintains its dissonant stance on Coogle’s honesty. Despite predicating the raid on Coogle’s apparently bogus assertions that Jason Westcott not only sold heroin but carried a gun at all times, the department still claims the results — 0.2 grams of pot and a legally-purchased handgun — confirm every wild claim Coogle made.
The Tampa PD refuses to discuss Coogle or his statements any further. He’s now just a self-serving liar, something he apparently wasn’t during the years he spent turning in alleged dealers in exchange for money or get-out-of-jail-free cards. This has been the problem with CI programs for years: people normally considered by cops to be inveterate liars who would sell out their own mothers to stay out of jail are suddenly treated as truth personified when passing tips and performing drug buys for investigators. And when the whole facade collapses, law enforcement agencies just walk away from the informant and the collateral damage, never once appearing concerned that their CI programs are reliant on the least-reliable members of society.