Book review: Informers: Policing, Policy, Practice, edited by Roger Billingsley, Teresa Nemitz, and Philip Bean

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a review in International Criminal Justice Review, 12:143-144, 2002.

Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2002. Review of ‘Informers: Policing, Policy, Practice,’ edited by Roger Billingsley, Teresa Nemitz, and Philip Bean. International Criminal Justice Review 12:143-144. 

This edited volume presents an overview of themes pertinent to the police use of informers (or informants, to use the more common, though not always identical, term employed in the United States). From various angles, the eleven chapters in this book provide useful information on the characteristics of informers, their motives, the manner in which they are used and/or in which they attempt to use police, as well as the methods that are in place to control and regulate police practices relying on the informer system. This book is primarily written for the police professional and those interested in being or becoming practitioners, rather than scholars, of policing. As such, the various chapters treat themes that are relevant from the viewpoint of police management rather than the observing and analyzing eye of the police student. A brief review will highlight the themes discussed.

Most of the chapters in this book focus on practical aspects in the police system of informers. Philip Bean and Roger Billingsley open the book by discussing the effectiveness of using informers in terms of crime reduction, particularly with respect to illegal drugs. They argue that a certain overemphasis on the regulation and control of informers ironically tends to leave the drug problem, as the root of much evil, out of the picture. Drawing on his research of police informers, Roger Billingsley argues that police must be very clearly aware of, and respond to, the motives of informers to take up and continue or discontinue their role. Teresa Nemitz offers another and very interesting aspect to consider, namely the gender of informers. Women are not only underrepresented in both the categories of informers as well as police using informers, they also define their roles differently and act in ways sometimes sharply different from their male counterparts. Carole Ballardie and Paul Iganski discuss similar differentials but now in terms of age, focussing on juvenile informers and the specific problems they pose. Next, Steven Greer introduces the notion of the ‘supergrass’ to discuss the professional criminal informing on other criminals. Of special interest to the readers of this journal, Greer draws explicit comparisons between the role of the supergrass in different countries of the world. Rounding of the contributions on the practical aspects of the police use of informers are chapters by Bill Griffiths and Alan Murphy on community informers in so-called ‘crimestoppers’ programs, and by Philip Bean on witness protection schemes.

Other chapters in this book discuss more explicitly some of the many ethical issues posed by the police use of informers. Tom Williamson and Peter Bagshaw weigh pragmatic considerations to use informers with ethical arguments that, especially in light of discovered abuses, suggest to not too readily resort to the strategy. Oversight from ethics committees is offered as a solution. Likewise, Nigel South suggests that clear guidelines should be developed to regulate the use of informers and prevent coercion methods by police to obtain information from informers at any cost. Analyzing the role of informers in relation to police corruption, Roy Clark also discusses an important cost of the informer system. For while informers allow police to stay clear from over-involvement in crime markets, their use also puts serious pressures on police integrity, especially to use informers as substitute undercover agents. Rounding of the ethical discussions, finally, Peter Neyround and Alan Beckley discuss implications of the Human Rights Act of 1998, which requires police to also take the viewpoint of the citizen into account, not just the objective of crime control.

I find that the chapters of this book do a good job of unraveling several of the many practical and problematic aspects involved with the police use of informers, particularly as some of these issues have managed to occasionally stir public debate on the ethics of police agencies more commonly using (often paid) informers while still being indebted to maintain adequate effectiveness in criminal investigation. As such, the age-old conflict between restrictions of due process, justice, and rights posed on police actions, on the one hand, and the popular and political demands for efficient crime control, on the other, is rightly the central foundation for the analyses in this book.

Though written by academics as well as practitioners, the chapters in this book provide much more from and for the latter. A social-science book this is not. Hence, what I found missing in most chapters were sustained treatments of, or even mere references to, the growing literature on the social conditions and implications of the police use of informers. These matters have been well researched and debated by sociologists and police scholars, who analyze policing strategies and practices, not as participants, but as observers.

This book, also, deals exclusively with the British policing scene, and its insights are not readily transposable to the United States. This comparative element, however, is a strength for all who are recognizant of the linkages, similarities and differences between police practices across the world. In this respect, it is most interesting to read how the efficiency of police informers is in the British (and wider European) context now restrained by recently passed human right legislation, the likes of which are not known in the United States.

All in all, I would recommend this book, not because of its contribution to the social-scientific literature on policing, but as a source of primary data which can be useful for analysis. Indeed, this book provides a good inside picture of the problems and prospects of using informers by police that offers a rare and forthright glimpse into this aspect of the world of policing.

See related writings on police and policing.