Confidential informants play an important role in helping law enforcement solve crimes. But an arrest of a Tampa police officer and the investigation of others accused of colluding with an informant sheds light on how those relationships can go wrong. Tampa police Chief Jane Castor needs to move quickly to complete the investigation of the officers and conduct a thorough examination of her agency's use of informants. She must ensure that the conduct of a few officers are isolated occurrences and not evidence of a systemic problem.
In April, Castor fired veteran homicide detective Eric Houston after investigators alleged that he accessed state and federal databases to steal information that was later used to commit tax fraud. The IRS found that Houston ran thousands of searches in databases between 2010 and 2012. At least 4,600 of the people whose information Houston allegedly accessed had fraudulent tax returns filed in their names. Some of those people were involved in cases that Houston investigated.
Last Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times' Peter Jamison revealed that $27,000 in tax refunds issued to people whose names were gleaned from searches done by Houston and other Tampa officers was delivered to the home of Rita Girven, a registered informant. Girven has helped to secure an estimated 30 to 50 arrests by Tampa police. She apparently was so connected in the department that family members dropped her name to get out of traffic tickets. Girven, who has been arrested 34 times, says she could count on the department for up to $150 to help with personal expenses.
Houston and his wife, La Joyce, a Tampa police sergeant, became legal guardians for one of Girven's children. In October, the trio's unusual relationship began to unravel. Police overheard jailhouse conversations between La Joyce Houston and Girven in which Houston planned to use Girven's food stamps and put money in her jail canteen. Houston was fired and arrested on charges of food stamp fraud and grand theft. That incident led to questions about her husband and an investigation uncovered the tax fraud scheme. Eric Houston, who has not been charged, maintains his innocence and says he did not commit a crime.
Tampa police have a recurring problem with ineptitude in its mid to low-level command. Most recently, Castor was forced to overhaul her DUI unit and fire its leader after he participated in the sham arrest of a lawyer involved in a case between two radio shock jocks. Separately, Tampa police so badly handled the investigation of a drunk driver who killed two pedestrians that prosecutors offered the driver a plea deal. Castor should take the issue of confidential informants and the breakdown in the supervision of officers just as seriously. She also should tighten the rules on employees' computer usage and develop a mechanism whereby questionable database use can be detected and investigated. The public has enough concerns about criminals stealing their sensitive information. They shouldn't have to worry about crooked cops.
Castor put off retirement for a year at the urging of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. She should use the time she has left to move with speed, resolve and candor to fix problems in the department. Doing so would allow her to hand over a police force that has buttressed itself from scandal and corruption.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Tampa police department detective Eric Houston is linked to some of the cases federal investigators allege involve tax fraud. A Sunday editorial gave an incorrect number of cases. Houston was also legal guardian for one of informant Rita Girven's children. The editorial incorrectly identified a specific child.