The University of Mississippi’s Faculty Senate is taking a closer look at the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics unit and its controversial practice of using students as confidential informants. This comes in the aftermath of the highly critical 60 Minutes report. MPB's Sandra Knispel reports.
“They sent him out to buy marihuana a few times, wired,” says a father in the Oxford area who says his son, just 18 at the time, was pressured into becoming a confidential informant for the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics unit. His son, he says, was tricked by an acquaintance, a confidential informant himself, into selling him a small amount of marihuana.
“They bullied him. And told him ‘If you don’t sign these contracts to work for us we’re going to tell your parents. We have you on three felonies. Your life is over. You could spend life in prison,’ the father remembers his son telling him. They told him he had to set up 10 people, twice each. He had to do 20 transactions.”
The original story dates back to a series of investigative articles by the online news outlet Buzzfeed, which chronicled the practice of the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics unit, alleging coercion of college-aged low-level drug offenders into working as confidential informants — or CIs. Critics argue the practice has serious flaws.
“Oftentimes, it results in young people being made into drug sellers when they are not really drug sellers,” says David Hill, an Oxford-based criminal defense lawyer. He says the practice artificially creates criminals.
“That young person is caught with possession and is told that he or she needs to make a certain number of cases to get themselves out of trouble. They turn then back to the people they know, friends and acquaintances, to make a buy so that they can turn them in,” says Hill. "And the people from whom they are making their buys aren’t drug sellers, they are just drug users."
And it’s dangerous. These stings have gone wrong in the past, says lawyer Hill, not just in Mississippi. The Metro program here is jointly funded by the City of Oxford, Lafayette County and the University of Mississippi, each contributing $100,000 annually. In the wake of the scathing reports, some changes have been made, says University of Mississippi Police Chief Tim Potts. Among them…
“They made it much clearer to those that are in the program that they had the right or the opportunity to speak to somebody before deciding on whether they wanted to be in the program.”
Several stakeholders on campus are not happy about the university’s involvement. The Faculty Senate is investigating and there are rumblings at the Law School with professors expressing concern over the lack of direct oversight, safety, and liability issues. To be fair, Chief Potts arrived just seven months ago on campus and inherited the setup with the Narcotics unit, which is unique among the state’s public universities. But pulling out, the Chief says, is a catch-22:
“If we are not involved with Metro they are going to operate and they won’t be asking for our input on how they are going to operate. And they will still have the opportunity to bring the students in as CIs. And they can come in an operate on campus — we just won’t know that it’s taking place," Chief Potts says. “And that’s what happens around the United States.”
On the chief’s desk sits a framed photograph of his daughter, a student at another university. I ask him what he would tell his own child if she were caught on a minor drug charge and offered to turn confidential informant.
“Honestly?” I wouldn’t want her in the program.” Why? “It’s my daughter. Safety is number one. Drugs is a nasty business. It’s a dangerous business.”
Meanwhile the nightmare continues for the Oxford-area family of the former CI. The son has dropped out of college, is saddled with college debts, and working minimum-wage jobs, not making ends meet. They still live in constant fear of retribution from drug dealers. Again the father:
"My wife and I were both put on antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills. They didn’t agree with us. We tried them for a long time, hoping to get some sleep. Now, four hours is a normal night.”
Chief Potts says the program will now be reviewed annually. But noticeable is that no one on campus is particularly eager to rally to its defense.