The tragic heroin overdose death of a student at UMass Amherst raised grave doubts about the risks of a policy that allowed campus police to recruit students as confidential informants. University administrators are right to suspend the program while a comprehensive review is completed.
A Globe investigation revealed that UMass Amherst police officers caught the student, identified only as Logan, selling drugs on campus and recruited him to work as an undercover informant instead of suspending him from school. They did not pursue any criminal charges, nor did they notify the student’s parents of his drug offenses. But Logan was also a heroin addict. Almost a year later, after Logan helped campus police identify and arrest drug dealers, he died of an overdose. The police claim they did not know Logan was also a drug user. But, inadvertently or not, they pushed him into becoming an undercover informant while essentially allowing the former hockey star to continue his heroin addiction — and left his family in the dark. Logan’s death very well may have been preventable.
Many law enforcement officials are specially trained in the challenging business of handling confidential informants, who can sometimes uncover valuable information in criminal investigations. Campus police officers are less likely to receive special training, however. In Logan’s case, notifying his parents would have compromised the value of having him as an informant in the first place. His health and well-being got lost in the process.
Campus police are in an awkward position: Their role is to enforce the law, but they also report to universities committed to protecting students’ welfare. This same dual mission has led to complaints about an unfair two-tiered justice system in universities and colleges already under siege over their handling of sexual assaults. While students like Logan are adults, and legally entitled to certain rights, they should not be used as confidential informants in criminal investigations on campus.
When Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy ordered the program’s suspension Tuesday, he indicated that it might be ended completely. His announcement, which marked a stronger stand than the administration’s initial position, recognizes the essential role of the university. By ending the program, UMass Amherst can truly create an environment where “every student can learn, thrive, and mature.”