Last month, the University of Massachusetts Amherst announced the end of a controversial program that allowed students to avoid drug treatment in exchange for serving as confidential drug informants. The decision followed the heroin overdose death of student informant Eric Sinacori, who not only got out of treatment, but also avoided drug charges. The tragic story offers three potential lessons for higher education officials.
Lesson No. 1: There's significant risk for institutions
That was the advice a former Middlesex district attorney, Gerry Leone, gave to Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy when asked to review the confidential informant program. One problem was pitting students against each other — the antithesis of the kind of culture a university should be fostering.
Subbaswamy terminated the program earlier this year, about four months after suspending it. He had suspended it when the Boston Globe revealed in September 2014 that one of the program’s informants had died from a heroin overdose in 2013.
The university appointed a panel to examine the informant program, and the panel produced a report criticizing its secrecy and potential harm to informants because police were allowing them to avoid drug treatment in exchange for their participation.
That’s what happened with Sinacori, whose parents were also never notified of his arrest for selling drugs or involvement in the informant program. They didn’t find out about his heroin habit until he was dead.
Lesson No. 2: The programs can be a very effective tool
According to the university panel’s report, the informant program had been in place for years and contributed to almost half of the university police’s drug arrests over an 18-month period examined by the panel. Meanwhile, according to the report, no other state universities in Massachusetts used student informants, or had done so in recent years.
But student information programs at other higher ed institutions have also been quite effective — and courted their own share of controversy.
The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, UW-Stout, and UW-Eau Claire use student informants on drug buy arrests, and UW-Whitewater reports that over the last two years, it used about 20 students as confidential informants. UW-Green Bay, UW-Oshkosh, and UW-Milwaukee also use confidential informants, although not necessarily on drug cases.
UW-Whitewater, UW-La Crosse, UW-Oshkosh, and UW-Milwaukee were ranked Nos. 11, 31, 33, and 50, respectively, among the top 50 colleges for on-campus drug arrests, counting schools with at least 5,000 students and residence halls on campus.
In 2013, Tuscaloosa police reported their biggest drug bust in city history, with 99 arrested, including 61 University of Alabama students. Police said their undercover operation was helped by confidential informants making drug buys on campus, though whether those informants were students was not clear.
Lesson No. 3: Tragedy isn’t limited to UMass
Florida state legislators are now debating a proposal to strengthen a law created in 2009, following the death of a recently graduated Florida State University student who was working as a confidential informant. The graduate, Rachel Hoffman, was shot and killed in 2008 while working a sting operation for the Tallahasee police.
One possible change to “Rachel’s Law,” which was passed to protect such informants "from being bullied into doing police work," is making police officers subject to a felony charge for not complying with the law.
College and university administrators considering whether to allow their police forces to use students as confidential informants have to weigh, of course, the seeming advantages of combating drugs and drug-related crimes on their campuses. But if the case of UMass has any influence, those administrators will choose alternatives.
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