November 2014 podcast: Students uncover risks of being undercover drug informants

By Student Press Law Center

Eric Bosco and Steve Fox of the University of Massachusetts Amherst discuss a class project investigating police officers’ use of college students as undercover drug informants, which sometimes ends with tragic consequences.

Frank LoMonte: Hi everyone and welcome to another installment of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast. I’m Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. The SPLC is a source of legal research, information and advocacy in support of student journalists and their advisers all around the country.

We offer free legal and educational resources online at www.splc.org, and we encourage anyone with a legal question about their rights in gathering and publishing news to get ahold of us through our email hotline, splc@splc.org, or 703-807-1904.

We’re here today to talk about the subject of police use of college students as undercover drug informants, a controversial practice that has come to light as a result of some really enterprising reporting on the part of college journalists around the country.

Part of a team of journalists that uncovered a disturbing story in the Boston area is with here today on the podcast, Senior Lecturer Steve Fox at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and one of his investigative reporting students, UMass Amherst senior Eric Bosco, are with us to talk about their investigative work on the practice of using college students as undercover drug informants and the sometimes tragic consequences that can result.

Steve Fox is a 25-year experienced professional journalist, most of that time spent as an editor with The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com, he’s also worked with ESPN and in addition to his work with the investigative reporting program, he also directs the sports journalism program there, so we’re happy to have Steve Fox and Eric Bosco with us on the podcast, and I guess Steve, maybe start of, we hear a lot of talk about this concept of teaching hospital journalism, with students actually providing the baseline news coverage that their communities need instead of just writing term papers like in the old days.

I guess, can you talk a little bit about this partnership that your lab has with The Boston Globe, which has published some of this really remarkable work that the students are producing — Front-page caliber, major metropolitan, daily work.

Steve Fox: Sure, thanks for having us today, Frank. I’m a big advocate of the teaching hospital model. The investigative class that i teach, that produced this front page story for the Globe, it’s definitely the product of a classroom working as a newsroom, and the class usually turns out to be upper-level students, juniors and seniors, who have already been through a couple advanced writing classes and are really trying to take their skills to the next level.

The partnership with the Globe has evolved over time. The class has done three projects now with the Globe. We’ve also partnered with two other news organizations, including the Huffington Post and MassLive, which is the website for one of the local papers in Springfield, Mass. So, definitely one of the attractions to the class is that the students are actually able to see their work published. It’s ale a pretty high-intensity class in that we’re under pretty hard deadlines to get things done by the end of the semester, but for the most part students seem to get into it and enjoy it.

LoMonte: Well Eric, one of the things that has really put this program on the map is the reporting that your class has done about the death of a UMass. junior from a heroin overdose during a time that he was working as an undercover police informant. Tell us more about how that story came to light and how you pursued and what your ultimate findings were.

Eric Bosco: Alright, well the topic for the investigative class last semester was heroin, so I had about a heroin overdose that happened off campus and I had also known that this kid was, prior to his death, used as a confidential informant by UMass police. I didn’t know that for sure, but I had heard it through the grapevine and it was, I was the same year as the kid, I was a junior at the time, so I had heard it around campus that he was a CI at one point. He wasn’t actively informing at the time of his death, but a year prior to his death he was a confidential informant.

So I knew of him that way and I also knew he overdosed on heroin because I heard it from one of his neighbors. So I was bringing it up one day in our class, sort of working as a newsroom, just bouncing ideas around, possible leads, where to look, and Kayla Marchetti was sitting across from me and she said “well, I knew my old neighbor from last year, her boyfriend just died of a heroin overdose, so I asked the name, turned out that was the same name of the kid that I knew, who was the kid who OD’d and was a CI a year before his death, and from there we just went after the documents, went down to the Town of Amherst, got the death certificate, proved that he had OD’d on heroin and then documents from UMass Police proved that a year before his death he was a confidential informant in a drug case and everything just kind of went from there.

Fox: what was interesting about this story, and often with the student work, is that the amount of stuff that students know on campus just by talking with one another can sometimes be stunning. So this kind of started off as a story that everybody had kind of heard about, and then it reached the next level when we were able to get the death certificate and then get our hands on police documents, but the story really reached another level when, after Eric and Kayla had this long conversation with the mother, a Skype conversation actually, and she had mentioned that she had texted the drug dealer who had been in contact with her son the night that he died, and she texted him a nasty message when she got ahold of his phone, and then told Eric and Kayla that there were all of these text messages on the phone, so we were trying to figure out how to sit down with her and go through the messages and we really couldn’t handle a trip to where she lived because of liability issues, so I said, “call her and see if she will send us the phone.”

So she sent us this phone that we had over a year’s worth of text messages from the kid who died, and it really, it was like he was speaking from the grave. It was just stunning the level of insight that we got into him and his character and his struggles.

LoMonte: That is remarkable. I have to take you back to what Eric said about obtaining documents about this student’s work as a confidential police informant. I’m sure there are people out there thinking they are lucky if they can even get ahold of a police incident report, let alone documents of that level of complexity and sensitivity. Can you talk a little about getting the police to turn loose those records. Was that an easy task or was it something that took a lot of back and forth?

Bosco: Well, first I wanted to find out if he actually was a CI. I had heard that as a rumor, and the first confirmation came from his girlfriend, and that was the first interview that we did. Kayla put me in touch with her and we wend and did the interview and she kind of confirmed that he was a CI, so immediately that day I went down to the UMass. Police Department and filed a records request with his name and the date of when she thought that he was arrested, well excuse me not arrested but busted I guess and flipped as a CI. And then I waited a couple of days and got a phone call, went down to the police station, picked up the envelope and in it was I think 12 pages detailing his initial bust, undercover officers’ text messages to him and then the full incident report of the night that he served as a CI, so it was pretty easy.

LoMonte: Well that’s a really remarkable level of cooperation from a police department and not one that I’m certain would happen in every state and with every department. I guess, would the outcome have been different had he still been alive and they had had a privacy interest to protect, but certainly the argument is less compelling that there is any privacy interest to protect when you’re dealing with a deceased person, so that may have facilitated your access in this case.

Fox: And you’re absolutely right. Cooperation with university police and university officials in general is tenuous at best at most times. In this case they … they also gave all the supplementary parts which identified him as CI and gave us the details of the original incident where the police were about to arrest him in his dorm room the year before he died, and that was when they found the hypodermic needle, which ended up being a key part of the story.

This is one of the real issues that the mother had with how the police and university officials handled the case was that the police really didn’t take into consideration that he — at least it didn’t appear so anyway — that he was a possible user and needed help rather than being turned into an informant.

LoMonte: I should mention, too, this is maybe something people are scratching their heads and thinking about. We think of drug informants as being some sort of a product of east LA gang culture and not something you expect to find on the campus of a really high-end university, but this is not a practice that is in any way limited to UMass. Right around the time that your team was reporting on this story for The Boston Globe, a comparable story came to light and was published in Wisconsin by one of the non-profit investigative reporting outfits there, Wisconsin Watch, and I definitely commend their coverage, which is on wisconsinwatch.org. They also looked at the practice of the use of college student informants there and they found documentation that on at least four campuses that are part of the University of Wisconsin System, that there was evidence that the police had been using college students to make undercover drug buys and to facilitate drug busts, and the circumstances are all comparable to the ones that you reported on for the Globe. A student is caught with drugs and rather than accept a prosecution, the student makes a deal and the deal involves going out and selling, undercover, as to set up other people for arrest, and certain in your case this question really came to a head because of the overdose death of the young man. Can you talk a little bit about what has been the fallout and the reaction after this hits the front pages of The Boston Globe and the spotlight shines on this overdose death?

Bosco: I would say there was a lot of shock, really, a lot of students didn’t know that there were informants employed by the police department here on campus. The department has a policy for confidential informants, but it’s not on the website, it’s not out there for people to look up and Google, so nobody really found out about it. It’s not listed in the police logs or anything like that, so prior to this story, I would say the majority of campus had no clue that students were being used as informants, so initially, aside from the fact that the kid had died from a heroin overdose and the tragedy of that, in the university response, suspending the program and calling for a revue, there was pretty much just kind of surprise, generally, about the fact the university was using informants at the time.

Fox: I mean the university actually moved pretty quickly, the chancellor denounced the program, the university-wide president came out and registered concerns. It moved pretty quickly from “we’re going to revue it” to “we’re going to suspend it,” to now there is a university-wide committee looking at the use of confidential informants.

There was the class, there was me, there was my colleagues, there was people I spoke with, and this whole notion of confidential informants on campus was something that you associate with the 1960s drug culture and civil rights and all the stuff that was going on then. You know, I spoke to a number of different people in law and law enforcement who are kind of stunned by this use.

And it was in direct contrast to one person, we interviewed a chief in Greenfield, Mass., Greenfield has a pretty serious heroin problem, and his approach is trying to find ways to get people who are ODing, people who are using, to get them into programs. Him and his officers will find people who have OD’d, and in the past an arrest would have been made but now they are trying this different approach and you hear this in different places, where the approach to heroin use needs to be one of treatment and not one of law enforcement, which really seemed to be the issue that we ran into with this story.

LoMonte: Well one of the other issues that’s been raised in other jurisdictions, and there’s quite a remarkable story that I command people’s attention about, the death of Rachel Hoffman in Tallahassee, Fla., that was published by The New Yorker magazine. It’s quite a disturbing story about how the Tallahassee police were using college students, and in her case recent college graduates, to go under cover under very dangerous circumstances and make drug buys and in fact this young woman, Rachel Hoffman, was murdered by people with whom she was attempting to set up an undercover drug deal.

Her parents ended up suing and getting a large settlement in excess of $2.5 million from the City of Tallahassee for the police’s negligence in the way they were supervising this program and it resulted in the enactment of the state law in Florida that talks about the training that’s required for police to be working with informants.

I think that’s another interesting question here when you have campus police doing this. People do not usually think of campus police as being especially well-trained or experienced in dealing with very serious crimes. They normally think of them as glorified security guards.

Has any of this come up in discussion now in Boston in terms of just the safety considerations that come into play when you’re sending somebody undercover who is not a hardened criminal but might be some must up in the head anthropology student?

Bosco: I think the one important thing there is that I had known, as a student, that this kid was an informant. So the confidentiality part of it didn’t really exist. He was busted one night for selling molly and LSD out of his dorm room, and that same night he was brought to a higher-level dealer’s room who he had known, it was actually a former roommate of his, and he was equipped with a wire, went in, made the controlled buy, left and immediately after the detectives went in and made the real bust and made the arrest.

At that point it’s pretty obvious the people in the room, who were being busted, who had informed on them. So his name spread through campus like wildfire, through that drug community and the grapevine and whatnot, so his identity was not confidential. And around here the drug culture is not violent and it is not like east LA gangs or inner-city areas. Amherst, Mass., is a rural place and a pretty high level public university, so he wasn’t going to be tracked down and shot in a back alley, but he was ostracized because he was identified as the snitch because of the confidentiality part of it really didn’t seem to exist.

Fox: And the training is definitely an issue, and this is one of the real points that the mother brought up was that there was a hypodermic needle found in his room the night that he was flipped as a CI, and you go through his text messages and he’s pretty much using, except for a short period of time, that entire year before he died.

What we heard from police was “he’s an adult making his own choices,” and while that’s true, using a drug addict as a confidential informant raises a number of different issues, including credibility of what information you’re getting, and just the humanity side of it. Talking about a college student, sure they are an adult but there’s also this whole notion of in loco parentis, I’m trusting my child with you for four years, you’re going to take care of him, or her, and that really didn’t seem to be the case here.

I think one of the things that has come up is, if they move forward with the confidential informant program, whether or not to have drug testing if someone is admitted to a CI.

LoMonte: Sure, well we’ve gone through a lot of really useful tips, I think, for someone that was trying to replicate a story like this in their own community. You mention, which is a wonderful way to start off, using your state FOI law to get the police reports surrounding the bust of the informant and then any other supporting documents that you can get by the way of FOI request, and the police certainly, it sounds like, having both the cooperation of the family and the cooperation of the girlfriend, were key in your reporting.

Any other thoughts from either of you about just, sort of lessons learned, takeaways from this investigation that might be of use to somebody else pursuing a comparable story?

Fox: You know, if you’re trying to do it as a class, you know the biggest constraint you have is time. You’re looking at 13 weeks or so and in that period of time you’re covering a lot of grounds. You know, there’s a ramp-up period, it’s almost like the class developed into thirds in which the first third is kind of “OK, here are interviewing techniques, here are reporting techniques, let’s kick around some ideas. The second third of the class is going out and reporting and then the last section is writing and drafting and writing and drafting.

You know, getting the support of your department head, your department chair is crucial, especially if you’re investigating something on campus. You’re going to hear about it from a variety of people about what you’re doing. If you’re investigating something serious that doesn’t reflect well on the university, you’re going to have administrators attacking you or trying to undercut you, and having to work around that, it’s a great learning experience and a great learning environment, but it’s difficult. There are a lot of obstacles, things are going to go wrong, stories are going to die, and being able to be nimble and be able to really kind of find that sweet spot and get those students moving at the right times is a high-intensity type of thing to do, but when it works, it’s pretty amazing when you see what students do in a rather short period of time.

LoMonte: Eric, any takeaways from your experience with this? Anything you’ll take into a future project with you?

Bosco: Ya, it was almost like not even being in school anymore. It was like not really even a class. It was like going in every day to work in a newsroom, so I kind of dropped all of my other responsibilities because at that point I could care less. I was working on a story I knew was going to be A1 material and I knew it was a meaningful story that I needed to tell. So the late night, five-hour-long Skype conversations that ran to 2, 3 a.m., with the mother just compounded that and I felt a personal connection to the story and I just ran with it. The only takeaway I have is that it was worth it to sort of drop everything that I was doing to not worry about classes and sort of make my educational experience what I wanted it to be, I guess, and that was being an investigative reporter on campus.

LoMonte: Well I want to thank both of you for joining us, sharing your expertise, and also for this amazing investigative work that has really put this issue on the radar for discussion, and it looks like it’s bringing about a really positive and over-due discussion at your campus.

Again, Eric Bosco and Steve Fox, thanks for joining us and thanks for your terrific work with the Globe.

The Student Press Law Center has all sorts of resources online for those looking to request records from public agencies in their own community, including an automated fill in the blanks public records request form that can help shorten your time. We invite you to check out all the resources available on splc.org and send us a message at splc@splc.org, if you need any help with any aspect of your legal rights as a student journalist or journalism educator.

thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you next month.