This column first appeared on PoliceOne.com.
When Trainer Pat McCarthy was working undercover for the Chicago Police Department, hanging out in bars, pool halls and other public places where he could rub shoulders with gangbangers and other habitual lawbreakers, he was struck with how freely bad guys talked about the crimes they'd dreamed of and committed.
"Self-incrimination spewed out of their mouths as thick as their halitosis," McCarthy told PoliceOne. "They'd even get into shouting matches over whose gun took down some shooting victim. I felt like a priest in a confessional."
The ears that hear these things belong not only to other felons or cops in disguise. Indeed, there is a vast army of people who for the most part are not of the criminal element but whose proximity to that world puts them in position to hear and see things of vital interest to you as a crime fighter.
Because these people belong where they are, due to where they live or work, they tend to blend into the environment, virtually invisible to the street thugs you're after. If you take the time and effort to develop friendly relations with them, you'll be surprised how many secrets they'll pass on.
"When I was a rookie, an old-timer told me, 'Kid, you can spend your whole life riding around in a squad car and never know what's going on. You've got to get out and mix with people,'" recalls McCarthy, creator and lead instructor for the popular Street Crimes seminars. He advises, "Treat everyone you come in contact with as a potential resource for information. You never know exactly whom you're talking to, whom they talk to or who else talks to them, or what they'll overhear before you see them next time around.
"Bad neighborhoods all have good people living and working in them. They may have seen the gangbangers grow up from an early age. They may have sons and daughters who hang with gangsters or their associates. They may have friends or relatives who are connected to criminal activity. They may hear rumors and gossip that flow like a river through the streets.
"Many will be willing to feed you useful information without any compensation. But they don't want to be documented as formal CIs. If you limit yourself only to those you can sign up, photograph and fingerprint as informants officially recognized by your agency, you'll miss many golden opportunities."
Here are just a few of the prospects you might look to for help, beyond the obvious snitch candidates.
The Invisible Army
Some departments have directives that may prohibit street officers from working with informants. The tactics in this article can prove very effective, but check departmental regs to make sure you stay out of trouble. If your agency has such a prohibition, consider talking with an administrator about a modification to permit the use of these techniques. ed.
"Make friends with postal carriers, package deliverers, utility repair people and cable TV installers," McCarthy suggests. "People like this know where the hinky houses are.
"I've had cable guys call me on many occasions to report that they've just been in a house or apartment of a drug dealer. While the TV guy is rigging up cable, the dope dealer is on the phone talking about drug deals, not perceiving the installer as a threat.
"One time a utility rep told me about an apartment where he saw a large amount of computer equipment. He thought it might be stolen, and it was."
Park attendants, crossing guards and others who are regularly on the street make good contacts, too.
"They spend an awful lot of time in a neighborhood, even if they live someplace else," McCarthy explains. "They usually hire local people and they hear all kinds of gossip and street talk. Employees coming to work on Monday usually talk about what happened over the weekend."
Because business owners or managers have a financial interest in what happens in their area, they're often willing to cooperate quietly if you approach them discreetly. Especially cultivate bar and restaurant owners. "Gangbangers and other criminals often try to sell stolen merchandise or move dope in these places, and the element tends to congregate there. When people are drinking they get loose lips about what's going on in their lives."
Get to know desk clerks and maids in local hotels and motels. Drug pushers often conduct deals in these premises. Gangbangers and other criminals may go into hiding there after major crimes. "Clerks and maids usually know who's up to no good," McCarthy says.
Landlords, Building Managers & Janitors
"They usually know when an apartment is being used by gangbangers, and they may be happy to cooperate with you in hopes of ridding their buildings of this trash," McCarthy says. "They may have license plate numbers, nicknames, drug-stash locations, all kinds of valuable intelligence."
"Some are highly critical of cops, and you may have to work extra hard to convince them you're there to help them and their constituency," says McCarthy.
"Keep in mind there are generally two types of leaders. One kind grabs headlines and is probably most interested in self-promotion and the exploitation of controversy. But there are always informal leaders quiet, competent individuals who genuinely inspire confidence in those around them. Work with them. People tend to go to them instead of to the police about problems in the neighborhood. They are worth your nurturing."
Used to be, cops were always talking to whores on the street. Now with AIDS rampant, some officers seem more reticent. "I've seen cops with their squad car window cracked only about an eighth of an inch and leaning so far away they've almost got their head on their partner's shoulder as some prostitute is trying to talk to them," McCarthy says.
"Whores know what's happening on the street. You can't afford not to develop them as sources."
There are people in gang neighborhoods who monitor police frequencies on scanners, not to abet criminal activity but simply because they're fascinated with the cop world. "Some are pretty strange rangers, no doubt about it," McCarthy observes. "But they're our fans, and they may know a lot about what's going on in their 'hood."
McCarthy recalls a young scanner-head he befriended named Thurman, whose mother managed a multi-unit apartment building occupied mostly by gangbangers and other undesirables. One night, McCarthy remembers, "He called me and said, 'The cops were here yesterday looking for a guy in room 312. He wasn't home then but he's home now.'
"As it turned out, this subject was wanted for burglary, and because of Thurman's tip, I was able to make the arrest."
McCarthy found some creative ways to provide payback. Occasionally he would take Thurman on a fake stakeout to let him in on "real" police work. While they sat waiting for a nonexistent offender, McCarthy would chat up his guest, picking his brain for all kinds of gang-related information.
"Other times I'd key in my radio while I was on patrol and just say, 'How you doin' there, Thurman?' No ID, no call letters. Just a quick voice on the radio. But he knew exactly who I was. You'd think I'd given him a thousand dollars."
Children are everywhere in gangbanger territory. McCarthy learned the hard way not to ignore them.
When he was brand new to the Gang Crimes Unit and working to scratch up leads on the murder of a 'banger called Blade, he went to the area of the crime scene and tried to get some gang members to cough up something to work with.
While they were stonewalling him, a little kid walked up and said, "The guy that shot Blade lives in that building over there." One of the 'bangers smacked him on the head and told him to get lost. The kid wandered off, and McCarthy just dismissed him.
"Two days later," he remembers, "another officer brought in a suspect on the case. I was sick to learn that he lived in the very building the kid had tried to direct me to.
"Since then I've gone out of my way to talk to youngsters in the areas I work. Often they're young enough that they haven't yet developed a hatred for the police. When I find one who's friendly and talkative, I "deputize" him or her as my junior deputy. I have the kid raise his right hand and place his other hand on my badge and swear him in.
"Sounds hokey, but the kids love it. I've solved some major cases with that gimmick."
Once you've opened the door with any informant, keep the relationship alive. "If you haven't heard from your contact for a while, call up and just BS with him a bit," McCarthy advises. "We all have moments of down time when we could make a quick call. He may ask what you need. Tell him, 'I don't need anything. I was just thinking about you and wanted to see how you're doing.'
"Sympathize with the informant's situation. Always talk about his future in positive terms. Stress the possibility that he has better days ahead and that you are interested in seeing him succeed outside the criminal world.
"Snitches often feel they're just being used. You want them to think you really care about them as people, even if you don't, because that will help motivate them to do more for you.
"I know it's not easy. I've had street sources who were extremely bad people. But the truth is, the more rotten they are, the more criminal activity they've been involved in. That could mean they're in a better position to help you out.
"If you look hard enough you can usually find something about an informant you can like. Try to focus on this so you don't show your true feelings about the rest of his life.
"Remember: It's a game. If you want to be effective, you have to play it."
Remsberg's column is a PoliceOne.com exclusive, sponsored by Blauer.
Want More? For additional valuable strategies for finding, grooming and managing street sources and C/Is, conducting effective street interviews, surveillance tactics, courtroom survival strategies, interrogation tricks & tactics, ethical considerations for the street cop and finding hidden traps and secret compartments, consult the new Street Cop video training series produced by McCarthy in VHS and DVD formats. Call 800/275-4915 or visit www.streetcop.com. McCarthy also created the Street Crimes program, a unique and informative three-day training seminar presented in over 100 cities across the U.S., Canada and Mexico every year. All Street Crimes instructors have at least 20 years of actual street experience. Visit www.reid.com and click on Street Crimes Program, or call 800/275-4915.