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Developing Confidential Informants

by Robert Scott, P.I.

The right confidential informant can make or break an investigation – whether the case is a small staged accident or a homicide or other serious crime. Yet for most investigators, cases with an important confidential informant are relatively far and few between. When I heard that there was an LAPD detective who was giving presentations in law enforcement circles on the cultivation and utilization of confidential informants, I had to know more. Could techniques be developed which would allow an investigator to uncover more confidential informants?

Detective Robert A. Jakucs has been with the LAPD for 21 years, manning details in Robbery, Burglary, and Homicide, including the Richard Ramirez "Night Stalker" serial killer case. He’s also been a licensed PI since 1990 – a job he’ll be moving to on a full-time basis when he retires his police badge in August. I sat down on a recent Saturday morning with Det. Jakucs (pronounced Jacks) to find out more about what he had learned about confidential informants.

Robert Scott: Why is it so important for an investigator to develop confidential informants?

Det. Robert Jakucs: An investigator can spend thousands of man hours to try and make a case. With the right technique and the right words, the same information can be developed in ten minutes from a confidential informant to break a case wide open. My approach is designed to get this person to give the information to an investigator.

R.S.: You’ve identified several basic motivations that most informants will respond to. What are they?

R.J.: The main ones are fear, self-importance, retaliation or revenge, gossip, and financial motives.

R.S.: How does an investigator identify which of these motivating factors is going to work with any given potential informant?

R.J.: I’m a big proponent of trying to find out as much as you can about a potential informant beforehand. If you know that the person is in an economic plight, there’s something you can hang on them. This tells you that this particular informant may be susceptible to a financial motive.

R.S.: Take the motivation of self-importance. How does this work?

R.J.: Often times we come in contact with people who live in small, dreary little worlds, who have small, dreary little jobs. A PI can use this to motivate cooperation, to turn the tables, psychologically. You’re pumping up his self importance. He likes that feeling and he starts to trust you.

R.S.: Where do you start with a potential confidential informant?

R.J.: The most important thing is to sell yourself -- not so much as an investigator, but as a human being. They’re a human being, too. Then, try and find what we have in common.

R.S.: Are you saying that the investigator’s approach should not be as an authority figure?

R.J.: Oh, absolutely not. You want to establish a common ground between you and the person. An area, unrelated to the actual investigation, that you share with the person. Look for something of interest to the person that you can discuss with him. If he’s wearing a Boston Celtics shirt, discuss basketball with him. He has a picture up of dogs. You discuss dogs. The purpose is to for the person to see you as a person, to relax him, so that he’ll feel comfortable opening up to you. You will literally begin to see a relaxation of the body language of the potential informant toward you.

R.S.: Tell me about the interview process with the confidential informant. He’s been approached. You’ve identified yourself as a private investigator. You’ve established human to human contact to create some common ground. Then what?

R.J.: Let the person know that you are there as an information gatherer. That you are not there as an investigator who has targeted him. Also that the most important thing to you is not who gives you the information, just that you get the information.

R.S.: Take me to the next step. The informant cracks. You get your first piece of information. What then?

R.J.: Once you get your first solid piece of information, that’s where verbal praise comes in. It’s the single greatest key to opening up the person. Such phrases as, "Hey, that’s really important or, what a great memory". The idea is to make them feel good for giving you information. Tell them they are doing a really good thing, or an important thing, or that they are really smart. People love praise and don’t get enough of it. Often times you’re dealing with people with little or no self esteem. All of a sudden this investigator is praising them and they feel important…and want to keep talking.

R.S.: At what point do you recommend that the investigator take out his notepad and start taking notes?

R.J.: This is a cardinal rule: Once an informant starts to talk, don’t write it down at this point. The reason is, when investigators put pencil or pen to paper, a fear factor can take over and the informant can say to himself, "Oh, Boy…look what’s happening! Now its record and I may burn because of this."

So, my advice is, don’t write it down initially. As the person continues to flow with information, casually ask the informant’s permission to take notes. Tell him, "This is really great, you’re giving me so much information. I can’t remember all of this. Do you mind if I write this down?" I have never personally had somebody tell me that I can’t write something down.

R.S.: After the investigator has successfully opened up the informant and obtained information, and needs to conclude the interview, how should it be ended?

R.J.: It should always be done on a professional, upbeat, friendly manner – whether or not the person was cooperative. Now, why would I want to leave a non-cooperative person in such a manner? I might encounter that same person one year, or two years or five years from now. That person is back again as a potential informant. And they remember you, and they remember the fact that you left them in a positive, professional and friendly manner. They may give it up the next time they see you.

R.S.: Confidentiality is certainly a key to working with informants. What is your approach to this?

R.J.: The biggest stumbling block for any informant is his fear that his name is going to be revealed. There’s a fear factor. Never promise confidentiality to an informant if you can’t honor it. If you know that you will not be able to hold the informant’s information confidentially, you have to tell him that.

R.S.: What happens when a PI is accepting information from a confidential informant, but at the same time has a client to report to?

R.J.: This has to be worked out ahead of time with your client. Let him know what your ground rules are. You have to tell the client that there is a possibility that an informant may be out there who might not talk if his identity is revealed. Therefore, will he, the client, accept not knowing who the informant is if the situation arises? You have to ask your client, can we stick to those ground rules? You have to level with your client. Nothing’s under the table. Everything’s above board. It’s got to be done ahead of time.

Robert Scott is a Los Angeles-based private investigator and author of "The Investigator's Little Black Book 3". Visit his website at www.crimetime.com. This article was originally published in P.I. Magazine.



Copyright 2000 Crime Time Publishing Co. All rights reserved.