Oxford’s confidential informants: one year later

Posted on May 3 2016 - 9:01pm by Lana Ferguson

“Everyone knows not to mess with this guy. You don’t even buy drugs from him unless you’re hardcore. The cops had me crack him because they knew I was hardcore.”

University of Mississippi student and multiple drug offender who requested anonymity, was talking about his first drug bust as a confidential informant for the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit. He successfully helped the police arrest a major dealer in the Memphis area.

The CI, who says he had previously been arrested for the possession of marijuana and other drugs, said he was “pretty much forced” to join the confidential informant program. But by doing so, in an attempt to avoid another mark on his criminal record, he put himself and his identical twin brother in a much more serious situation.

“I knew it was coming for me when my other dealers and other people I know who do drugs found out that I was behind this,” the CI said. “I got my ass beat. People couldn’t believe I was on the other side, but I felt pressured and I did it and it’s done. People were after me.”

Although physically identical, the brothers are nothing alike. The twin said he doesn’t do drugs but knows people within his brother’s circle who do. After the CI made his first bust, people warned his twin about the threats being made.

“Of course these big dealers don’t know that he has a twin brother. You don’t go into your personal lives with these people,” the twin said. “You get the drugs and get out. That’s why it was scary for us when people were, and probably still are, after my brother. We are literally identical.”

The twin said he never got hurt but still lives in fear because people recognize him, even a year after the original drug bust.

“There have been plenty of times where someone is looking at me, and I can see it in their face. They stop in their tracks,” the twin said. “Confused look, stare, whisper to the person next to them. I already know what they’re thinking: they think I’m (the CI).”

These brothers are an example of a drug culture that exists on the Ole Miss campus. Though authorities say it mostly involves marijuana and the abuse of prescription drugs such as Xanax and Adderall and is no more widespread here than at other university campuses — it exists.

(Photo by: Cameron Brooks) The Lafayette Metro Narcotics Unit's office is located on the second floor of this municipal building, just off the Square on North Lamar.

(Photo by: Cameron Brooks)
The Lafayette Metro Narcotics Unit’s office is located on the second floor of this municipal building, just off the Square on North Lamar.

A year ago, a stunning story broke. Last April, national news outlet BuzzFeed wrote a story highlighting the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit and its use of college-aged confidential informants. The article used anonymous sources to tell the personal accounts of CIs, leaders within the unit, University officials, lawyers and more.

The unit was founded in the 1980s, when similar operations were being established across the nation in the war on drugs. Lafayette County, the City of Oxford and the University of Mississippi equally fund the program, each paying $100,000 a year. A member from each of the funders sits on a “control board.” The board is composed of University Police Chief Tim Potts, Oxford Police Chief Joey East and Deputy Sheriff Scott Mills. The director of the unit works with and reports to the board. There are four full-time officers that work with the unit in addition to the director and control board.

The issue that the University was funding a confidential informant program that puts its students at high-risk for harm was brought to the surface by the BuzzFeed article. The CI program and narcotics unit, previously virtually unknown to much of the public, came under harsh scrutiny.

Then the media firestorm spread. BuzzFeed published follow-up articles, CBS’ highly popular 60 Minutes ran a segment on CIs with special mention of the University of Mississippi in December, and local media outlets like The Daily Mississippian, The Oxford Eagle and NewsWatch reported on the unit. Coverage continued to publicize the unit in a negative way.

University students were speaking out about how they were pressured by the unit to join the CI program, as if they had no other choice, about the danger the program put them in, and of being mistreated by members of the unit.

If there was ever a time for the University and Oxford-Lafayette community to speak up about its involvement with the unit, it was now, and they did.

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Brandi Hephner Labanc said in an interview that the conversation around the University and unit’s partnership had been ongoing for years before the articles were published. The University’s involvement with the program even influenced the hiring last June of the new University Police Chief Tim Potts, who had experience working with similar programs at other universities and helping to accredit police agencies.

“Do I love the program? No. That’s the honest answer,” Labanc said. “Our other option is to not be a part of it and have no say. So, if we weren’t engaged in any way, the city and county would still do this.”

She said the partnership is a double-edged sword and the University is working to be good partners in the unit and she believes the majority of students are impacted in a positive way because of the work the unit does.

“For me it’s about how we create a culture where the vast majority of our students can be successful, and educated about the choices they’re making, and that they make good choices,” Labanc said.

Mike Watts, an attorney with the Holcomb Dunbar firm in Oxford, has had cases dealing with drugs and the narcotics unit since the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. He has defended many clients, some of whom worked with the narcotics unit as CIs. The CIs were given a strict time period to complete the deals and were expected to make those deadlines.

Watts said no matter the location, confidential informants are always at danger of being hurt or killed. However, there are two sides to every story and the narcotics unit is no different.

“To have an effective drug program there has to be some sort of something that confidential informants can be involved in,” Watts said. “On the other hand, when a system is used where you are not targeting real drug dealers but instead looking for trouble in the community, you are going to have a lot of issues. It’s a case-by-case basis.”

Dave Luna, a University Police patrolman, has been working with those cases on campus for two years now. He said he deals with a drug bust every night he is on duty, the most common drugs being marijuana and prescription pills.

“CIs are a valuable part of any narcotics enforcement,” Luna said. “Without them you don’t have an inside scoop, especially the hard stuff that’s harder to get a hold of. The CI program has made an impact with the drug trade on campus and in Oxford.”

Luna said the relationship between UPD and the narcotics unit is a good one and he is in contact with them weekly. He said UPD enforcement has remained the same, even following media attention like the 60 Minutes segment.

“We will talk to anyone about our work,” Luna said. “We do not have anything to hide.”

He said narcotics are something law enforcement has to deal with or it would get out of hand and UPD, Oxford Police Department, the sheriff’s office and the narcotics unit are trying to control the issue from the “ground level— from someone smoking weed in their dorm room to someone selling pounds of cocaine.”

Pat Patterson, mayor of Oxford, said he stands by the narcotics unit as well and said he thinks the narcotics unit is needed for the long-term, even as changes are being made. He said the moves began before the 60 Minutes segment.

“There were already some changes in the works there,” Patterson said. “We brought in a new director, but that was happening long before that article came out.”

That new director is Rod Waller, who took leadership of the narcotics unit in January after Keith Davis, who had faced a lot of backlash due to the initial media attention, transferred into the sheriff’s department. Davis could not be reached for comment.

Waller has been working in drug enforcement for more than three decades. He began at the state level with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics for eight or nine years then moved to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for 25 years.

“I came in and I wanted to try to evaluate the way they had been doing things prior to this time,” Waller said.

He said one of the main things he’s looked at is the CI program and the unit is working toward having a program that fairly represents its jurisdiction as it enforces the controlled substance laws.

“(The control board and I) just want to make sure that everybody agrees that our policies are in line with what people expect from us,” Waller said.

He said he plans to be hands-on, see what’s going on and have oversight. The community has been supportive of the change in leadership and the mission to better the unit.

“I think the people of Oxford and Lafayette County and the University, generally speaking, I don’t think they want drugs here,” Waller said. “They don’t want people selling drugs, and I don’t think they want people to be using and abusing drugs. I think they’re supportive, but they want us to be held accountable for the way we enforce these laws.”

The confidential informant program is essential to drug enforcement, Waller said. Without the program, they wouldn’t be nearly as effective and the University in particular has a high use of drugs. The program is focused on people who are distributing the drugs rather than just abusers.

He said there is always going to be drug use at the University but the goal is to keep the use somewhat controlled.

Waller himself said he has been a confidential informant and seen the effects of long-term drug use on people. He’d spoken with a man in his 30s who was a heroin addict and had been hooked on drugs since he was 14 years old.

“Had we done a better job, had we stopped someone from selling for the first time, maybe he wouldn’t be there,” Waller said. “The war on drugs has been going on for a very long time, it’s still out there. I personally feel that we need to address the issues. We want to protect people from becoming dependent on drugs.”

Although confidential informants are essential to the success of the unit, Waller said no one is forced to do anything and most students actually decline the offer.

“I guess they make an educated decision on what they’re looking at and decide not to do this,” Waller said.

The unit has already changed certain policies within the CI program, like no longer having a set number on which a potential CI has to produce. The number of expected busts per informant had previously been very high, around 10. The unit is also steadily working toward becoming accredited, which they are doing through the city’s police department.

A report from the unit, including more recommendations and suggestions for changes within the organization from Waller, is due by July 1.

– Lana Ferguson

Students in Journalism 377: Advanced Reporting contributed to this article.