Time for UMass to bury the confidential informant program

By Steven O'Neill

(Michelle Alcott/Collegian File Photo)
(Michelle Alcott/Collegian File Photo)

This University has a problem. Instead of helping our most vulnerable students – those in the throes of addiction – the University of Massachusetts Police Department has turned them around as informants, keeping them immersed in drug transactions and forcing them to help convict their friends. The UMPD’s mission statement, which provides for “a safe environment in which to live, learn and grow,” rings hollow to those who are aware of its practices. In light of the recent Boston Globe exposé, the campus police have shown incompetence – at best. At worst, they are complicit in the death of a young man.

Who conceived this policy, and why does the University seem to think the student body will accept its return in any form? In cases of drugs like heroin, addiction specialist referrals and parental notification are good ideas on their own, but they must be combined with actual common sense programs that protect students at risk instead of facing them with the dangers involved with informing. If the student, referred to in the Globe as “Logan,” hadn’t been an unwilling pawn of the UMPD, he may have been able to get the rehabilitation he needed by now.

What kind of policy results in campus police helping a student conceal heroin use from his own family? When you find a needle in a student’s room, you don’t just sweep it under the rug.

A three-year investigation published in 2011 by the American Civil Liberties Union found that New Jersey’s statewide practice of using confidential informants suffered from inconsistencies and fatal flaws, often leading to dismissals of tainted cases, decreased public trust and wrongful convictions. Even in a professional metropolitan police district, “one of the most glaring findings was the lack of training for officers,” wrote co-author Dr. Jon Shane.

Another example occurred in 2008 when a 23-year-old Florida State University student named Rachel Hoffman was apprehended at a traffic stop for possession of 25 grams of marijuana and a few capsules of ecstasy. Instead of letting her go through the regular avenues of justice, and perhaps receive help along the way, the Tallahassee Police Department offered her a way out: an intricate “buy-bust operation,” in which she would buy 1,500 ecstasy pills, two ounces of cocaine and a gun from two convicts. Lacking manpower and training, the two narcotics officers who devised the plan were unable to stop the two men from executing her later that night.

The incident, which received national news coverage, resulted in “Rachel’s Law” being enacted in Florida. The law mandates increased training and rules for confidential informant (CI) officers, while provisioning additional rights for the accused. To date, Massachusetts has no equivalent law.
The UMass Police Department has neither the resources nor the training to effectively carry out a confidential informant program, to say nothing of the ethical wrongs involved in doing so. Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s news release contains some problematic language: he has suspended the practice, but does not rule out its return. If the CI program does come back, its changes will be superficial and its questionable premise will remain intact. For the sake of safety and accountability, students should demand this misguided five-year project come to an end.

Steve O’Neill is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]