UMass Amherst to end use of student informants
AMHERST — The chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has decided to end the school’s controversial confidential informant program, concluding that it is “fundamentally inconsistent with our core values” after an informant used by the university police died of a heroin overdose.
Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy suspended the program in September after The Boston Globe revealed that an informant had died of a heroin overdose in October 2013. In order to avoid drug charges, the student had agreed to help campus police, and his parents were never informed that he was involved with drugs or that he had served as an informant.
Subbaswamy said he will scrap the program permanently after a university-appointed panel completed a highly critical report that concluded the informant system was too secretive and may have harmed the informants themselves by allowing them to avoid treatment for their drug problems in exchange for helping police catch other offenders.
“After careful consideration, I’ve concluded that enlisting our students as confidential informants is fundamentally inconsistent with our core values,” Subbaswamy said in a news release. “We have determined that our Police Department and Student Affairs division can employ other approaches as [they continue] to combat illegal drug use, possession, and sales, and protect the members of our campus.”
UMass police have used students as confidential informants in drug cases for years, with such informants helping police in nearly half of their drug arrests over a recent 18-month period, according to the report by the 11-member panel Subbaswamy appointed to review the policy.
But revelations about the death of the informant, identified in the Globe by his middle name, “Logan,” cast the flagship campus of UMass in an uncomfortable spotlight. Logan’s parents said they had no idea he was using heroin until they discovered his body in an off-campus apartment on parents’ weekend in 2013. His mother was furious that university police recruited him to be an informant without telling his parents.
“If I had known he was an informant, I would have driven up to the school and raised hell,” she said on Wednesday. “You’re using my son as an informant in college?”
And if she had known her son had been caught selling drugs, she added, she would have gotten him help. But she didn’t get the chance, she said, because police did not pursue charges in exchange for Logan’s help in another drug case.
Logan’s mother applauded Subbaswamy’s decision to stop the program.
“That’s just how it should be,” she said.
The report by the Group on Confidential Informants found serious problems with the lack of parental notification, despite UMass policies that normally require notification for drug policy violations. Police recruited informants at their discretion and did not have to report to UMass administrators; the informants were expected to keep their role a secret as well.
“The underlying rationale for notifying parents is to ensure that the student is getting the family support, attention, and advice that he or she needs at a critical juncture in his or her life,” according to the group’s 31-page report. “If a student instead enters into the confidential informant program . . . he or she does not receive the necessary family support.”
The report also found that no other UMass campuses or Massachusetts state universities use students as informants currently and have not done so in the recent past, according to an informal survey.
Diane Curtis, the committee chair, said there was a general feeling among committee members that the university needed to supplement law enforcement efforts in dealing with student drug abuse.
“My sense of the committee is we would all favor a greater role for a public health approach to drug use on campus,” said Curtis, UMass’s director of prelaw advising and a lecturer in political science. “Not instead of law enforcement efforts, but in collaboration with law enforcement.”
Subbaswamy also asked Gerry Leone, a former Middlesex district attorney, to review the confidential informant policy.
He was unequivocal: “You shouldn’t do it.”
In an interview, Leone said he has serious problems with a school policy that pitted students against students, and he wondered whether the use of students as informants was “consistent with the culture and environment a university wants to create.”
Elimination of the informant program removes what had once been a significant tool for the 61-member campus police force in enforcing school drug policy, primarily revolving around marijuana use. The panel found that during an 18-month period from September 2012 to February 2014, 49 percent of UMass drug arrests involved the use of informants.
However, in the months after Logan died on October 4, 2013, campus police stopped using informants, the report found, though police have said they did nothing wrong in Logan’s case. Officers repeatedly asked Logan if he needed help with drug addiction, police said, adding that they did not know he was using heroin.
Text messages obtained by the Globe reveal that Logan was chastised by his peers for his role as a police informant in the arrest of a campus drug dealer.
“You’re just a really selfish [expletive],” one critic wrote in May 2013. “Jail is a risk you have to be comfortable with when you’re in the business, dude.”
The group panel concluded that the informant program increased student distrust of one another, noting, “There is some evidence that students have previously been identified as so-called ‘snitches’ and have, as a result, faced ostracization and isolation by fellow students.”
Logan’s mother said she began receiving anonymous hate mail after her son’s story was published in the Globe, including messages like “snitches end up in ditches.” Others suggested that Logan was “poisoned by his heroin dealer to get rid of him.”
“I thought that confidential meant confidential, not that everyone would find out,” said Logan’s mother. “Now I’ll always wonder if Logan was murdered.”
The panel did not address Logan’s case specifically, because Northwest District Attorney David E. Sullivan has reopened its investigation of the case. However, the university’s vice chancellor of student affairs, Enku Gelaye, said that the student who allegedly sold Logan the heroin on the night he died is no longer at the university.
Subbaswamy’s decision to end the program leaves open the possibility that other law enforcement agencies may still recruit students to provide information. Leone recommended the formation of a university confidential informant team made up of top officials, including Gelaye and the campus police chief, to work with other law enforcement agencies.
“We would certainly look to be informed” about the use of students as informants for other agencies, Gelaye said.