Lafayette County citizens and government officials alike have firmly established their stances – either pro or con – regarding the 60 Minutes production of Confidential Informants (CIs) and the fact that Lafayette County’s law enforcement agencies via the Metro Narcotics Unit are active participants in the controversial practice.
Last Sunday night (December 6), a 60 Minutes’ broadcast presented an arguably harsh and dark side to the way in which Metro Narcotics – the drug unit associated with Oxford police department, University police department and the Lafayette County Sheriff’s office – conducts its business in regard to detaining drug offenders and recruiting them as CIs – or “snitches” as many have labeled them.
Although entrance into the program is voluntary, a majority of participants feel as if they have no other choice except to cooperate; consequently vaulting them into dangerous situations where they are forced to solicit others to either buy or sell drugs.
In exchange for meeting an arrest quota set by the district attorney’s office, lighter sentences or even a clean slate is promised. Sadly, over the years, this pressure and practice has led to the death and suicide of a number of CI participants in the US as reported by 60 Minutes.
To many, the foremost issue is that the offenders – Ole Miss students in many cases – are thrust into policing situations where they receive no training or authority. Common conception (or perhaps, misconception) is that the program and some of its policies exponentially increase the risk to the CI and even to his/her potential “target.”
However, Oxford Chief of Police Joey East believes that procedures they have put in place greatly reduce that risk; and that Metro Narcotics does not randomly assign the number of setups the CIs must reach but rather that value was determined by the district attorneys office.
“The ‘10 Program’ was put in place by the DA’s office because we used to not have a quota,” East said. “That was put in place by the DAs office at the request – mind you – of defense attorneys. Metro has nothing to do with that part of the program.”
According to Chief East, “CIs are not asked to go purchase any type of drug from someone they don’t know. It’s what we call a debrief or an interview process. During the interview, we talk to them about their normal activities and people they know that have bought or that they know are selling. The CIs dictate to us what they will do – not us dictating to them what they’ll do.”
Oxford government officials believe that although mistakes have been made since the program’s inception in 1988; not only is it a fair and valuable deal for felony drug offenders, it is essential in keeping nickel and dime drug dealers off of the streets of Oxford thereby keeping drugs out of the kids’ hands.
Chief East, Mayor Pat Patterson and other government officials have shown joint determination in their re-organization efforts of the Metro Narcotics Unit. It is anticipated that these passionate efforts will steer the program in a positive direction.
Mayor Patterson’s position at a meeting on Tuesday where the CI issue was discussed extensively is worth a re-visit here: We’re going to “take a hard look at what we’re doing from top to bottom and make sure it is legal, ethical and – beyond that – the right thing to do,” he said.
So, where do the two contradicting views lead us? With a much needed intelligent discussion that, hopefully, can help guide government officials as they move into a new era for the program.
HottyToddy.com has reached out to several citizens – ones who first contacted us – who are or have been directly involved with the CI program or who have proven to possess strong, educated opinions – either pro or con.
After an extensive review of online responses and from talking with these contacts and others; HottyToddy.com has discovered that the following are prevalent issues between the two schools of thought:
• Should minor drug offenses be treated differently; focusing on counseling and rehabilitation rather than criminal charges that could affect the offender for many years?
• The questionable interrogation and follow-up methods of the task force when recruiting CIs after their arrest
• The placement of CIs in dangerous situations without training or backup
• The Lafayette County Metro Narcotics’ (LCMN) policy in which a seemingly random number of drug deals are set for the CIs (addressed above)
The prevailing theme of responses HottyToddy.com has received is well illustrated by the following from Ole Miss alum who wished to remain anonymous: “A relative of mine saw the 60 Minutes special and alerted me to it. I just watched it online for the first time and it deeply concerns me. I am an Ole Miss alum and fortunately have no children in attendance there at this time. All parents of UM students need to be aware of this process. I am against drugs but this seems very scary.”
Like the example above, many of the responders that were contacted asked to remain anonymous for various reasons; the most prevalent being that of fear of potential repercussions from the very entity of which they speak.
William Beckwith, a retired UM professor, had no problem with anonymity and offered this as his main concern: “As a retired university professor, I believe that LCMN (Lafayette County Metro Narcotics) takes relatively minor offenses and turns them into major life and death situations. They do much more harm than good. The interviews of ruined students and C.I.s speak for themselves. The facts of the matter are that small amounts of marijuana are not ruining lives, educations, futures, careers and families – LCMN is. They are delusional if they think ‘Just Say No’ is going to stop college kids from smoking pot. The one trillion dollar failed drug war has proven that for over 50 years. Let’s stop the lies, the superstitions and the exaggerations. Let’s identify the United States citizens with addiction problems and get them medical help and quit treating them like the enemy. Give the half-million dollar a year budget to University Counseling Services and to Haven House. Let’s get the profiteers and the racketeers completely out of this problem; they are only making it worse. Let the police concentrate on protecting and serving.”
However, not all comments fall in the loosely defined “con” category.
“There seems to be a mass amount of people who are bashing the cops (LCMN) for their own wrongdoings,” one responder said. “I am in no way kin or affiliated with any policeman or department; however, I have managed to live in Oxford for 12 years without the first incident; speeding ticket, expired tag, DUI, et cetera. If you do what you are supposed to do, it doesn’t happen,” she wrote.
Chief East agrees that counseling is important and necessary. He also assures that offenders who have misdemeanor charges are never associated with LCMN. Those cases are solely handled by the court system and it alone levies punishment against the offender. OPD has no say in the matter after the arrest has been made.
“There’s a misconception out there that minor offenders are funneled through drug court,” he said. “That’s not the case. CIs are not picked from a pool of minor offenders. It has to be a felony charge, someone who possessed a felony amount of something.”
“No one … no one can be placed in drug court without having an evaluation by a medical physician to determine that they have an addiction,” Chief East said. “So, if someone gets placed in drug court and they think they got messed over (by OPD), well that’s out of our hands. Any police officer, any federal agency, any state agency; we have no control, we have no say of what happens in the court.”
Concerning the disturbing tape that 60 Minutes broadcast showing ex-Metro Narcotics Commander Keith Davis allegedly threatening a CI; Chief East re-emphasizes that important pieces of the interview were omitted.
“First of all, those 20 seconds shown on 60 Minutes is not our typical interviewing process,” East said. “This man had made threats against his (Davis’) family and you can’t take that out of context and say that’s how we talk to every person because that would be completely wrong. That’s not how they talk to people. It was an isolated event and they (the officers) overreacted.”
“The interviewing process that they do is not like that and will not be like that; so, the new commander (Rob Waller) coming in who worked for the DEA and MBN is not going to allow that kind of behavior,” East added.
“They (60 Minutes) took the worst 20 seconds of that tape and broadcast it,” East said. “The next 15-18 minutes was textbook interviewing like they’re taught – and they didn’t show that. 60 Minutes seems to let people believe only one side of the story.”
The decades-old decision to participate in the CI program and recognition that it is essential and that it will continue to operate in the L-O-U community; local law enforcement agencies hope to repair trust issues that have surfaced. Their decision to scrutinize and reorganize the program is a provocative step in the right direction.
Ward II Alderman Robyn Tannehill summed up Oxford government’s position on Tuesday by saying: “We as a city, a county, a university, have decided that our community is worth fighting for. The safety of our citizens and children is worth fighting for.”
The contrasting schools of thought about this issue have been dissected and laid out by many news outlets since the 60 Minutes broadcast last Sunday. HottyToddy.com encourages open, rational discussion as the community and law enforcement officials move forward.
Jeff McVay is a staff writer and graphic designer for Hottytoddy.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.