Becoming a confidential informant can be both risky and enticing
For someone addicted to drugs or facing criminal charges, becoming a confidential informant can be pretty tempting.
For Branda Basham, it may have gotten her killed.
Confidential informants, or CIs, are mainly used to provide information on drug crimes or conduct controlled buys for law enforcement.
Local police rely on them for their insider knowledge of the drug scene in Kanawha County.
In return, CIs are often rewarded with cash, or dismissed charges or lighter sentences.
Several local police officers interviewed agreed that, most of the time, confidential informants are safe.
That wasn’t the case for Basham, who was gunned down on Charleston’s West Side on July 12.
Police say Marlon Dewayne “Ice” Dixon shot her to death because she was working as a CI on drug investigations.
Charleston Police Bureau Chief of Investigative Services Lt. Chad Napier said the police department relies on information from informants to determine if they are in any danger.
“We feel bad,” he said. “We feel sorry for the family. We would have done all we could had we known she was in danger, but we didn’t know she was in any danger.”
Hundreds of confidential informants are in a database that local police have compiled over the years, although many are inactive, Napier said.
While there are risks to becoming an informant, there are incentives as well.
“We have a lot of people, unfortunately, that use drugs that are informants,” Napier said. “They [become CIs] for the monetary reasons.”
Many confidential informants are paid, based on the case.
Pay can range anywhere from $20 to thousands of dollars.
“If somebody comes in tomorrow that could tell us they would get El Chapo down in Mexico who’s a master kingpin — I think he finally got captured finally — we may pay them $10,000,” Napier said. “If somebody comes in tomorrow and they say ‘I know where there’s a million dollars and I can help you get it in this house and it’s all drug money,’ then we’re probably going to pay them pretty well.”
Anyone can be a confidential informant — for instance, a neighbor living by a drug house.
But the CIs who are routinely used for drug buys and provide the most valuable information have close relationships with the drug dealers involved, Napier said.
“That’s what you gotta use. You gotta use people that have the ‘in,’ ” he said.
Confidential informants’ charges are not usually dismissed. Their work is more likely to be taken into consideration for sentencing, Napier said.
“We can’t make them any promises,” he said. “We can only say ‘whatever you will do for us, we will relay to the prosecutor and the judge.’”
Kanawha County prosecutor’s office Chief of Staff Chuck Miller said the CIs he works with are usually facing misdemeanor drug charges.
He said before cutting a deal with a CI, he looks at the person’s criminal history.
“Have they been in a lot of trouble?” he said. “Are they the Al Capone of the neighborhood? We don’t want to engage in CI activities with somebody who is a longterm criminal, although there are some circumstances where that might be an exception. You know sometimes the more serious the crime, the more difficult the organization to get into.”
Some confidential informants who were found out have been threatened and then relocated, Napier said.
“If we have people that intimidate we will get a warrant very quickly and we’ll go find them and arrest them,” he said. “If we have people that batter, we will make sure they’re prosecuted.”
Police said protective measures include sticking close by during drug buys, and using a CI number in police reports.
“When they’re out there doing things for us, we’re pretty close,” Napier said. “We’re there in the area. But a lot of times, it’s the things they’re doing when they’re not with us that end up getting them in trouble. They’re doing them anyway, whether they’re our informant or not.”
Napier said for the average CI, the risk of violence isn’t a deterrent.
“When you take an 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year old that lives the streets pretty well every day 24/7, they’re very street smart,” he said. “They know. Plus they go through a lot of money for drug use. They know that aspect. They’re not really easily intimidated.”
Kanawha Sheriff’s Department spokesman Brian Humphreys said some CIs may already be at risk, simply because they are aware of a crime in the first place.
“The safest thing for them in a lot of situations is to have that drug dealer put in jail,” he said.
Several officers conceded that the confidential informant system is imperfect, but it’s meant to keep the community safe.
“It’s dirty business,” Humphreys said. “It’s unclean sometimes. For the officers involved, it requires a lot of decision-making. It involves the individual judgment of officers. It requires diligent effort. I know the officers doing these cases have the best interests of society at heart. They have the best interests of confidential informants at heart, knowing most of them are not violent people themselves.”
Dunbar Police Chief Jess Bailes said the nature of drug work involves establishing relationships with those in the know.
“To totally eliminate confidential informants because it’s dangerous would basically just kind of thwart any kind of drug efforts you had in your jurisdiction,” he said.
Bailes, who worked for the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department for 28 years, said he isn’t aware of any serious threats or injuries to confidential informants over his career.
“Usually what happens is the person we catch through the confidential informant becomes a confidential informant,” he said. “That’s how you work up to the bigger-level dealer. I think a lot of drug dealers realize it is a cost of doing business.”
Napier emphasized that Basham’s fate was an exception.
“I’ve been doing this for 19 years,” Napier said. “My whole career has been spent in drug work. The worst I’ve had happen to any of my CIs — mine, not the whole group — is maybe get into a fight. I’ve never had any killed. I’ve never had any severely injured. If they listen to us, and they do what we ask them to do, very rarely do any repercussions happen.”
He said the use of confidential informants may not be ideal, but it’s essential to police work.
“If I could go sign up 10 priests here in Charleston to be my informants and buy all my dope for me, I’d probably do that,” Napier said. “They would be better in court. Their testimony would be higher than someone who is a drug dealer or a drug user. But they can’t go buy the drugs. Unfortunately, we have to go to these people who are out there in this type of world. We’ve got to be able to use them in order to lock up the violent ones who are out here creating havoc in our communities.”
Reach Erin Beck
304-348-5163 or follow
@erinbeckwv on Twitter.