Detroit Police officials have overhauled the department’s policy governing how paid sources are used, after a federal indictment accused narcotics officers of working with informants to rob and extort drug dealers.
Police say their relationship with informants is tricky, since many can’t be trusted. Still, informants are valuable law enforcement assets and are a tried-and-true crime-fighting weapon that has brought down many criminal enterprises.
“An informant can make or break a case, but you’ve got to always keep in mind you’re dealing with sleazy people who would snitch on their own family members if the price is right,” said Henry Crump, a retired Detroit and Inkster police officer. In the 1980s, he investigated a drug pipeline from the U.S. Virgin Islands — a case that was the basis for a “Miami Vice” episode.
“That’s why you have to be very careful, and verify every bit of information they give you.”
The federal case involving a crooked drug cop and his alleged co-conspirators on the police force offers a glimpse into the precarious practice of paying shady characters for information.
The trial of Detroit narcotics officers Lt. David “Hater” Hansberry and Bryan “Bullet” Watson, who are accused of stealing money from dope dealers and giving the drugs to informants to sell, is to begin in June, after several postponements. One of their partners in the drug unit, who has cooperated with federal authorities, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
After the accusations surfaced, Police Chief James Craig tightened the process of using informants.
“There needed to be better management and oversight when it comes to informants, because you’re dealing with people who commit crimes,” said Craig, who disbanded the Narcotics Section last year amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
Among the changes is a stricter policy on whom officers can use as an informant, he said, and they have to get permission.
“A police officer can’t unilaterally decide he’s going to use someone as an informant,” Craig said.
Cmdr. Johnny Thomas, head of the Detroit Police Organized Crime Section, which oversees narcotics investigations, said a renewed effort also has been made to ensure rules are followed.
Under a policy implemented by Craig in May, officers may no longer cut plea deals with informants in exchange for information.
“Before, you’d catch someone guilty of a crime, and you’d cut a deal with them to not seek a warrant if they cooperated,” Thomas said. “That was all done off the record. Now, the officer has to submit a warrant request to prosecutors, and the prosecutors determine whether to do a plea deal.”
There has always been a policy requiring officers to seek permission from a supervisor before using someone as an informant, but that wasn’t always followed, Thomas said.
“Now, we’re making sure those policies are followed,” he said. “We’re monitoring it better than we did.”
Payments over $400 have to be given out in front of a supervisor; anything over $1,000 must be approved by a supervisor; and anything over $5,000 requires an OK by the chief, Thomas said.
“The larger the payment, the more complicated the payment process,” he said.
The relationship between Detroit law enforcement officials and informants has long been rife with controversy.
Former FBI drug informant Rick Wershe, known as “White Boy Rick,” remains in prison after the state appellate court denied his resentencing bid. Wershe was sentenced to life in prison in 1988, after being caught with more than 17 pounds of cocaine at age 17.
At Wershe’s 2003 parole hearing, FBI agents credited him with providing information that helped the agency dismantle some of the city’s most notorious drug gangs, including 30 members of the “Best Friends” group of hit men, whom agents said killed more than 80 people.
FBI agents also said information provided by Wershe was the key to the agency’s 1992 drug corruption case, in which nearly a dozen police officers, including three on then-Detroit Police Chief William Hart’s staff, were convicted.
Hart was convicted in 1992 of stealing $1.3 million from a fund to pay drug informants, and allowing his civilian deputy chief, Kenneth Wiener, to steal an additional $1.3 million from the fund.
Police say informants provide information for various reasons, although it’s usually to get money to feed a drug habit, or revenge. Informants — referred to by police as “CIs” for confidential informants, or “SOIs” for sources of information — are paid a small amount of money if they purchase drugs from a location, or they’re given more if a tip leads to a large drug bust.
‘You can’t trust them’
“Some informants, you just use to knock on the door of a suspected drug house,” said Charles Flanagan, who for years ran Special Operations units on the city’s east side and was head of the former Narcotics Section.
If drugs are purchased, police use that information to get a warrant to search the house. Those informants are paid in cash, Flanagan said.
“Then there are the big-time informants, who give information about the bigger dealers,” he said. “Usually, they’ll get a percentage of whatever is confiscated.”
Police officials said the largest payout to a “big-time” informant was $250,000 following a $2.2 million drug seizure in 2010.
“The thing is, you have to always remember you’re dealing with people who are, for the most part, criminals that are involved in the drug trade,” Flanagan said. “You can’t trust them.”
Police and informants can sometimes get too close, as some say was the case with former narcotics officer Arthur “Curly” Leavells.
He reportedly was childhood friends with confidential sources known on the street as “Jeety” and “Kemp.” Leavells pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
He said he and other narcotics cops raided drug houses from 2010 through August 2014, but did not record the confiscated cocaine into evidence.
“Instead, the officers worked together to distribute the seized cocaine to drug dealers who could then sell it,” the indictment said. “The proceeds from the sale of the cocaine were split amongst the drug dealers and officers from the DPD Narcotics Section.”
Leavells, 44, of Novi cooperated with the FBI by wearing a wire to record conversations with fellow drug officers Hansberry and Watson, according to two police sources familiar with the investigation, and federal court records.
Federal authorities in April charged Hansberry and Watson with using informants to help them rob and extort drug dealers.
Court records indicate prosecutors have evidence that includes bank and cellphone records, text messages, tax documents, photos and the wiretap sources say was worn by Leavells.
Hansberry was promoted to lieutenant at age 33 and was considered a rising star in the department before the indictment.
Leavells worked in the drug unit under Hansberry, but quit several months ago after being suspended along with five members of the drug unit. They were suspended after a surveillance video captured them taking away a box that they never logged as evidence after a raid at a suspected drug house.
The box later turned out to contain a light used for growing marijuana. Four members of the six-person crew are back on the job, after prosecutors denied a warrant request seeking to charge them with crimes. One crew member retired, and Leavells quit. The others have been reassigned to different police commands.
Two others have been charged in the federal case. Kevlin Brown, allegedly a Hansberry associate, is accused of robbing and extorting a victim in January 2012; and informant Calvin Turner.
Turner struck a deal in May, in which he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, and will be sentenced Jan. 22. He could get almost four years in federal prison.
According to the plea deal, Turner agreed with others in April 2013 to distribute about 5 kilograms of cocaine. The cocaine had been taken by police officers following a car chase and traffic stop conducted by members of the DPD drug unit, court records show.
Turner was an associate of one of the officers and agreed with that officer to distribute the cocaine, according to court records. Officers delivered the cocaine to Turner, who sold it and shared the money with the officers, court records show.
Craig disbanded the Detroit Police drug unit in July after Flanagan brought charges of systemic problems,launching an Internal Affairs investigation that began in May 2014. The problems included handling drugs and evidence.