I spent half my career working secondary investigations in the detective bureau at my agency. I was fortunate to do it in three separate tours of duty—as a detective, sergeant, and lieutenant. I know how messy and high maintenance it can be to supervise confidential informants (CI’s) regardless of their motivation.

Most are defendants trying to reduce their criminal exposure, but there are also mercenary informants, paid informants, and simply good people trying to assist. Regardless of the categorization, each informant has liabilities. We had a saying in my unit, “Today’s CI is tomorrow’s arrestee.” In many cases these unscrupulous individuals are willing to turn on their own mother if it reduces their sentence or brings them a buck. And we capitalize on their selfish ambition to the benefit of our citizens.

But the risk to obtain human intelligence is taking a hit. As policies are modified, they are done so to improve performance, comply with changes in law, reduce risk to our officers, and manage civil liability. The latter reasons have led to stringent controls, and in some cases, the death sentence to information compiled from confidential informants. Or as my county now calls them, cooperating individuals.

The reality is many cases go unsolved without human intelligence, the best of which is supplied by informants. I could write a novel outlining cases I’ve been involved in that were solved by CI’s: gang related shootings—informants; major narcotic investigations—informants; murder for hire investigations—informants; organized crime conspiracies—informants; burglary rings—informants; serial robbery cases—informants; do you see a trend?

The use of informants will often lead to undercover work—again, a high risk and potentially messy proposition. So why are more administrations adverse to these operations? I can’t speak for them, but it appears they are willing to sacrifice the results for the occasional problems that occur. I view that as unfortunate, because there are many bad people victimizing our neighborhoods that will not be captured because fear has overtaken our strategic planning sessions. We want to keep things neat and tidy—“no spilled milk.”

If this describes your organization, and the topic is up for debate, consider a lesson from history:

In all likelihood, the United States of America would have died in its’ infancy had it not been for General George Washington’s secret six spy ring. Before we knew Benedict Arnold as a traitor, he was a general officer serving Washington as the commander at West Point in the Continental Army. Major General Arnold conspired with British Major John Andre and others. The conspiracy included the overthrow of West Point and security of the Hudson River.

Andre, traveling under the assumed name “John Anderson,” made his way north after meeting with Arnold, when he was detained. Although he carried paperwork from Arnold authorizing safe passage, America militiamen searched his boots and found plans that didn’t mean anything to the captors, but meant everything to Continental Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who coordinated Washington’s spy ring.

Tallmadge pieced together the scheme, and presented it to Lt. Col. Jameson, who was charged with Andre’s detention. Jameson feared the wrath of Arnold, and did not think Tallmadge was correct in his assessment. Wow, talk about pressure! Tallmadge pieced together a major conspiracy that would have dire consequences, and a superior officer thought he was incorrect. What should he do?

Tallmadge did what was right. He ignored Jameson’s concerns and made sure Washington became aware of his discovery.

As fate would have it, the events unfolded as Washington arrived at West Point to meet with Arnold who was no where to be found. Jameson sent word to Arnold that Andre had been detained. Jameson simply thought the British were trying to embarrass Arnold, but ole’ Benedict knew better. His treasonous collusion would likely be exposed, so he left without explanation prior to Washington’s arrival at West Point. He was unsure if Andre would eventually get released, but he knew the papers would expose his actions.

Arnold’s absence left Washington quizzically waiting for his return when a courier arrived with a package. The paperwork included that seized from Andre’s boot. It quickly became as clear to Washington as it was to Tallmadge—Benedict Arnold was a traitor.

In the meantime, Arnold thought his nefarious business was about to make him a well-compensated hero with the King’s forces—and the downfall of the Continental Army.

Had Andre reached safety with conspiratorial plans to raid West Point, it is likely the incursion would have given the British a tremendous victory that day. To capture the fort at West Point, control the Hudson River, and possibly take General Washington as prisoner would have been a coup to top all others. But it never happened because human intelligence was previously gathered indicating something was foul. Then finding the written plans between Benedict Arnold and John Andre provided the final piece of the puzzle.

Benedict Arnold made good on his escape and his sullied reputation was cemented in American lore. Not only did he betray American Colonies fighting for freedom, he betrayed his personal staff as well. They ferried him to safety thinking they were serving an American general performing his duty as he approached the British ship, Vulture, under a flag of truce. Once safely on the ship he informed his subordinates they were prisoners of war. Can you imagine the betrayal they must have felt?

I understand my illustration is taken from a time of war, and written about by Brian Kilmeade in George Washington’s Secret Six (1). But, the basic principle remains the same—human intelligence is usually superior to other forms of information. The best details come from those who rub elbows with the adversary. Or in the case of law enforcement, those involved in criminal activity. The reality is these people—CI’s—are typically involved in crime, not churchgoers. As such, policies and practices need to be established, adhered to, and monitored closely, not abandoned. I believe any agency choosing to abolish the practice because it’s messy will soon find the well is dry when it comes to intelligence and they will have more questions than answers as good people are victimized and bodies are in the morgue.

Remember that Washington’s first spy was Captain Nathan Hale. He was quickly discovered and hanged. Had Washington feared failure, his spy ring would have swung in the wind with Hale’s body. But it did not. He knew human intelligence would come with a price, but he also knew defeat was not an option, and that calculated risks were necessary.

Of course I am not suggesting we sacrifice the lives of our people while combating criminals, but I affirm that risks are necessary if we expect to capture and prosecute some really bad individuals that would otherwise remain free to terrorize our cities, towns, counties, and states.

As a prologue, the British refused to swap prisoners—Major John Andre for Major General Benedict Arnold. Washington attempted a covert operation to kidnap Arnold, but it was unsuccessful. Andre was tried a short time later and then hanged. Washington had an interesting perspective on Andre when he reflected, “(Andre) was more unfortunate than criminal,” perhaps thinking of his own Nathan Hale’s demise?

Benedict Arnold became a brigadier general in the British army and was compensated for his betrayal, but not as well as promised. He led multiple raids against the Continental Army before American victory was secured at Yorktown. Arnold returned to London where he died 20 years later at 60 years of age. And the naming of my favorite breakfast, Eggs Benedict, has nothing to do with the infamous traitor. I just thought you should know!


(1) Kilmeade, Brian, and Yaeger, Don. George Washington’s Secret Six, The Spy Ring the Saved the American Revolution. New York: Penguin Group, 2013.

Jim McNeff worked in military and civilian law enforcement for thirty-one years. He retired as a police lieutenant with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief with Law Enforcement Today.

 Jim holds a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from Southwest University and graduated from the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute as well as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) course, Leadership in Police Organizations. He authored The Spirit behind Badge 145 (WestBow Press, 2013) and Justice Revealed (CrossLink Publishing, 2016). He is married and has three adult children and three grandchildren. You can contact him at [email protected] or view his website www.badge145.com.