ST. PETERSBURG — They give police the location of a drug buy, a lead on a witness, the name of a killer.
In exchange, confidential informants get cash or a good word put in with a judge to help reduce a criminal sentence.
"Informants are incredibly necessary to solve crime," said retired Pasco County sheriff's Lt. Bobby Sullivan, a former vice commander. "Nobody knows crime like the criminal, but you have to keep in mind that they are a criminal.
"They are on the other side."
The distinction was blurred this week when the FBI arrested St. Petersburg police Detective Anthony Foster on charges that he extorted $8,000 in cash and goods from an informant who was trying to avoid jail time.
The homicide detective's arrest has raised questions about how the department handles confidential informants and whether police have too much leeway in the largely clandestine world.
Police Chief Chuck Harmon said investigators will review all the cases that Foster worked on, as well as any confidential informants he handled. They also will review department policies that dictate how informers are handled and how much oversight is given to the detectives who use them.
"I'm sure we'll talk about any safeguards we can create as a result of this incident," Harmon said. "I'm sure we'll be speaking to any other informant he has."
The FBI's criminal complaint against Foster depicts a detective with near unlimited discretion in his dealings with an informant. Foster texted and called the informer to demand payments in cash or gifts, such as a widescreen TV, Nike shoes and groceries. The FBI alleges Foster made clear in recorded conversations that, in exchange, he would get a reduced sentence for the informant, who had been arrested on a grand theft charge in Hernando County.
St. Petersburg police would not release a copy of the department's policy regarding officers' dealings with confidential informants. Spokesman Mike Puetz said the policy "contains information pertaining to the procedures utilized in covert operations, the release of which might compromise current or future criminal investigations."
A redacted copy will be provided next week, he said.
However, the criminal complaint against Foster suggests that there are either few regulations in place or that they aren't always followed. For example, in Foster's effort to convince the assistant state attorney in Hernando that the informant had helped him solve some cases, Foster had his sergeant call to corroborate his informant's value.
The supervisor, according to the complaint, told the assistant state attorney that the informer helped in major homicide cases and was "more of a benefit out of jail rather than in jail." Later, the sergeant faxed a list of four major investigations — including a March 23 murder — in which the informer assisted. When the FBI showed the informer the list, however, the informer denied assisting in any of those cases.
It's unclear why Foster's supervisor believed the informer had been helpful on those cases. Harmon has said he believes the sergeant was duped by Foster.
But other law enforcement officials said the incident seems like cause for further concern.
"I would verify that list, as a supervisor, before I put my name on it and send it to the State Attorney's Office in Hernando," said Sullivan, the retired Pasco lieutenant. "That's a red flag. If you're using informants, there needs to be immense documentation detailing what they've done.
"As a supervisor, I want to see a case number, a running log of where that case is and how that informer helped. There needs to be intense supervisory oversight when informants are being used."
But often there isn't, said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and national expert on confidential informants.
"The reason the use of informants is so out of control is the lack of regulation and transparency," Natapoff said. "The government is largely unaccountable in how they use informants."
Without checks and balances, the informant system can go horribly awry in cases that gain national notoriety. In 2008, Rachel Hoffman was murdered during an undercover drug buy while working as a confidential informant for the Tallahassee Police Department. Florida later passed "Rachel's Law" requiring police agencies to tighten restrictions on the use of informants.
The Los Angeles Police Department banned the use of informants after officers planted evidence and trumped up charges against suspects in a scandal 10 years ago. And the FBI resorted to tougher controls on the use of informants in 2001 after it was found that its Boston office had protected informers who were criminal kingpins, such as James "Whitey" Bulger.
FBI agents must now complete a report that documents informers' identities, their motivations for cooperating, and their relationship to the cases. The reports are signed by the agent's supervisor and reviewed each year.
St. Petersburg police have two types of informants, one paid and the other informal, Puetz said.
The paid usually assist in narcotics investigations or complex criminal cases, where they might have to wear a wire. The department keeps files on these types of informants.
There aren't any guidelines dictating how informal sources are handled, he said. These tend to be more like witnesses who tell detectives what they might have seen or heard on the street, he said.
Puetz said he couldn't comment on whether Foster's informant was informal or paid.
Informants are necessary, said Puetz, a former homicide investigator himself.
"In homicide and narcotics investigations, without the use of informants, we'd be dead in the water," Puetz said. "It's unfortunate something like this happened with Foster. We have to keep in mind that hundreds and hundreds of contacts are made every year with informants, and it's just this one case that was a violation of trust."
Natapoff said she suspects there are more cases like Foster's because informants often won't come forward because they have criminal records and know they don't have much credibility.
"A vast number of informants are vulnerable because they are young, addicted, poor, illiterate," she said. "It can be a very exploitive relationship."
And one that can change quickly.
Foster's once vulnerable informant is now the government's key witness against him.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com.