Pubdate: Sun, 20 Jul 2008
Source: Tallahassee Democrat (FL)
Copyright: 2008 Tallahassee Democrat
Author: Corey Clark, Democrat Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Rachel Hoffman)


She was supposed to stay in the shadows.

If things had gone according to plan, you never would have heard of 
23-year-old Rachel Hoffman. She would have just been another 
confidential informant, one of more than an estimated 100,000 in the 
United States who work with police to send someone else to jail.

But after a botched sting operation May 7 and her slaying, Hoffman's 
life is anything but confidential. Her name has been thrust directly 
into the national spotlight.

"'60 Minutes' has called, 'Dateline' has called, '20/20' has already 
been here and filmed," said Lance Block, the attorney for the Hoffman 
family. "Rolling Stone was here to do a story. I can't tell you how 
many media representatives have called me. Agents, people that want 
to do books - I don't have enough time in the day for it all."

"The media interest has just been so intense."

So much so that Block is utilizing the services of Ron Sachs 
Communications, a public relations firm in Tallahassee, to deal with 
the flood of media requests. Or in some cases, demands.

"'60 Minutes' wanted exclusivity," said Marsha Koppe, Vice President 
of Sachs Communications.

Block and the Hoffman family weren't willing to grant it, so instead 
"20/20" will be the first national magazine show to deal with the 
death of Hoffman.

"Right now, and things can always change if a national story breaks 
or something like that, but it looks like it will air on the evening 
of July 25," Koppe said. "And it's going to be a package piece with 
'Good Morning America.'"

Alexandra Natapoff is hoping Hoffman's "tragic story" wakes the 
nation up to the controversial use of confidential informants.

Natapoff is a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and one 
of the nation's leading experts on confidential informants. She has 
written a book titled "Snitching: Using Criminals to Manage Crime" 
that will be released by New York University Press, and she testified 
before Congress last year about a notorious case in Atlanta in which 
a confidential informant's lead wound up with the police raiding the 
wrong house and eventually killing an innocent 92-year-old woman 
named Kathryn Johnston.

Natapoff said Hoffman's case might create a similar fire storm 
throughout the nation because of who she was. Or more to the point, 
who she wasn't.

Hoffman wasn't facing serious jail time. She wasn't male. She wasn't 
uneducated, and she wasn't a minority.

"It's not just that she was merely white, she was also represented 
with counsel," Natapoff said. "And she had a family that did not 
think they needed to take this lying down."

One of the many questions raised by the Hoffman case is exactly how 
much danger confidential informants are in when they work with police?

The answers come from all over the country.

In 1984, a South Florida confidential informant was shot and killed 
at a bar in Palm Beach County.

In August 1989, an informer in New York City was shot and killed so 
he wouldn't give information to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

In 1998, a California teenager who had worn a wire during one 
undercover drug bust was later shot and murdered.

In 2004, a 20-year-old father of two was gunned down in Brooklyn 
after leading police to an apartment where a loaded gun and crack were found.

In 2006, a Pennsylvania man was stabbed more than 20 times and killed 
during a botched undercover drug buy after police officers lost sight of him.

"It's a routine risk and threat," Natapoff said. "It's no surprise to 
anyone in the criminal system that something like this would happen. 
But when the Hoffman family got mad they started asking, 'How could 
this happen?'"

And almost as importantly, how can it be stopped from happening again?

Block and the Hoffman family are hoping the media attention will 
spark a reform in how confidential informants are used. As it stands 
now, police agencies have free reign - especially when it comes to 
drug crimes - to make dangerous, secretive deals with users and dealers.

"There are no checks and balances," Block said.

And that's a problem, according to Natapoff.

While she readily admits confidential informants play a vital role in 
bringing criminals to justice, she is concerned about the lack of 
supervision and regulation involved in such a pressurized environment.

"The criminal system tells police officers you need to make drug 
busts," she said. "And here's a tool that will enable you to do that. 
We won't make you write it down. There are not any rules. We'll just 
leave it to your discretion."

Hoffman's case, with the national attention it has brought and will 
continue to bring, may be a catalyst for change.

"When any incident like this occurs in law enforcement, the command 
structure has to take a close look at how this happened and why this 
happened," said former Maryland police officer Rich Roberts, who now 
serves as the public information officer for the International Union 
of Police Associations. "Other officers around the country that see 
this story when '20/20' runs it - as well as the jurisdictions around 
Tallahassee that have seen the coverage already - are going to see 
what happened there and ask why.

"No one is going to ignore this. I can promise you that."

Natapoff argues there should be more accountability, more 
documentation and more transparency when it comes to confidential 
informants. She thinks cases like Hoffman's and Johnston's will help 
shine a light on this secretive and largely unknown aspect of police work.

"Inch by inch, story by story, you're going to start seeing the 
ramifications of these actions," she said. "But reform in the 
criminal justice system is usually one piece of the puzzle at a time."
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