Covert Human Intelligence Sources: The “Unlovely” Face of Police Work

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 22 August 2010



Licate, D.A. (2010), "Covert Human Intelligence Sources: The “Unlovely” Face of Police Work", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 33 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Covert Human Intelligence Sources: The “Unlovely” Face of Police Work

Covert Human Intelligence Sources: The “Unlovely” Face of Police Work

Article Type: Book review From: Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Volume 33, Issue 3

Edited by Roger Billingsley,Waterside Press,Sherfield Gables,2009,ISBN 978-1-904380-44-3

Roger Billingsley states that his collection of diverse contributions on the topic of covert human intelligence sources “serves as a foundation upon which to build”. For the most part, Billingsley and his contributors lay a quality foundation that primarily examines the legal and practical issues surrounding the use of confidential informers in the UK. Although some effort is made to distinguish “informers” from “informants”, including undercover operatives and witnesses, the bulk of readings deal with the former.

The book is divided into three parts: legal issues, practitioner issues, and a section titled “The Future”. Part one sets the tone for the balance of the book. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) is examined in great detail from prosecution and defense perspectives. RIPA regulates the use of informers in England and Wales, with rules for their use found in the unpublished Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) Manual of Minimum Standards. RIPA and the Manual are detailed and prescriptive and seek to overcome past mistakes in the use of informers.

Acknowledging that effective and ethical use of informers in the UK must be discussed in the context of RIPA and related rules, the collection of readings in the book is exhaustive in its examination of the legal issues related to covert human intelligence sources (CHIS), nearly to redundancy. Consequently, the reader comes away with a strong understanding of the legal issues surrounding CHIS in the UK. Such rigorous discussion of the constraints placed on the use of informers is welcome insofar as existing literature on the subject will sometimes disregard legal issues altogether in favor of the human factors involved with handling informers and various methods for employing them. In some cases, authors suggest methods that are wholly incompatible with the legal constraints in their jurisdiction. Billingsley certainly does not fall prey to that criticism as the section on practitioner issues is well grounded in the legal framework.

The work would be better if it included strategic issues surrounding the use of CHIS, especially in part three. Beyond a reading on debriefing methods, the section on the future of CHIS covers little new ground and focuses on operational issues, including risk management and the relationship between the informer and handler. The discussion of human factors related to CHIS is welcome, but somewhat misplaced in a section about the future. No attempt is made to discuss the use of CHIS in the context of a broader strategy.

John Murphy’s Foreword references strategy by noting that policing in the UK is intelligence-led. Current thought on intelligence-led policing as a business model and corporate strategy calls into question the use of informers for tactical purposes based on a paucity of evidence for the cost-effectiveness of using CHIS as an investigative tool. Furthermore, the cost in terms of policing legitimacy is weighed when using covert techniques in a democracy. Investigative techniques that use deceit can become counter-productive if they stifle information flow and co-production with the community.

This is not to argue that the use of CHIS should be abandoned, but that a strategic lens should be employed to determine when it is appropriate to use such a tool. Meeting the legal criteria for employing an investigative technique is necessary, but not sufficient. An investigative tool should not be used simply because it is legal to do so, but because it holds some strategic value for the organization. Research on the efficacy, efficiency, and legitimacy of techniques using CHIS to inform the strategic planning and coordination process in police organizations would have been a welcome addition to the text.

Billingsley’s work achieves the stated goal of providing a suitable foundation for those interested in the use of CHIS, particularly in the UK and as evaluated primarily by legal criteria. Although more of a point of departure than a final destination on the subject, readers will come away well prepared for advanced thought on the future use of CHIS.

David A. LicateUniversity of Akron, Ohio, USA