This weekend, HBO’s The Wire kicks off its final season. After living in relative obscurity throughout much of its run, the show is finally getting a lot of attention for telling amazing true-to-life stories from the inner-city that have long gone untold. The show’s material is based on the experiences of its two creators, former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and former Baltimore PD Detective and public school teacher Ed Burns. As one of those who found out about this show too long after it began, I’m still catching up on the last few seasons. While the show deals with various aspects of inner-city life, the drug war and its downstream effects are everywhere, demonstrating in full detail the damage being done by a policy that far too many Americans have been fully content to ignore. The final season will focus on the role of the media, and how it fails to tell this story.
Last weekend, I posted a response to a column from the Longview Daily News, written by editor Cal Fitzsimmons. The column was describing a case from rural Cowlitz County where a confidential informant, 40-year-old Tina Rivard, tricked federal drug agents into arresting a man, 21-year-old Bo Jeremy Storedahl of Kelso, on felony drug trafficking charges. The original article on the Longview Daily News site is no longer there, but the Seattle Times article on the case is still up (and another article from The Daily News Online is here).
According to Mike Carter’s account in the Times, Rivard was first arrested in May for forging prescriptions. In return for leniency, she agreed to become a confidential informant (or “snitch”) in order to help build cases against others involved in dealing prescription drugs. After successfully helping to convict one person, she helped the police nab Storedahl, a 21-year-old with no criminal record. She did this in part by tricking the drug agents who were listening in to her calls by quickly re-dialing a different person (her husband) and convincing the agents that they were listening to Storedahl when in fact they weren’t. After Rivard managed to carry the charade further and stage a drug buy at Storedahl’s house, the young man was arrested and charged with a five-count felony indictment. Now that Rivard has admitted to what she did and plead guilty, she faces up to 20 years in jail, while Storedahl was only charged with misdemeanor drug possession for the four pills he had in his pocket when he was arrested.
I initially took issue with Fitzsimmons’ column because despite the tremendous example he had right in front of him that the use of confidential informants can be fraught with problems, he brushed all of that off in order to reassure his readers that snitches are good. There was no desire to explore the world of confidential informants, to look into the role they’ve played in our prison overcrowding problems, or to look at the larger issue of why these drug war tactics are failing – both in large cities and small towns – to actually prevent people from using drugs, while also undermining the level of trust in law enforcement. A few days after my post went up, an interesting comment appeared:
Hey, sometimes it pays to Google your name. I suppose I could complain about your reprinting my column here, though in chunks, but I won’t.
I won’t even engage in an argument about snitches. (Love ’em). But I would suggest you lighten up. Cheers.
Cal | 01.02.08 – 4:45 pm
I wasn’t sure what was more amusing, the fact that the editor of a newspaper had such a poor understanding of Fair Use in the internet age, or that I was being told to lighten up by someone who still fervently believes that we’re achieving something by sending as many people to jail as we can for drug offenses. A second comment, however, was even more interesting:
FYI – Your assumptions about this case are largely wrong. Bo plead because he confessed to the crime and there were other witnesses willing to testify they bought dope from him (without any compensation by LE). Tina wasn’t simply forging prescritions, she was entrenched in the sale/distribution network. You can spin this however you want but you can’t change the facts – Bo was dealing – Tina was dealing – both faced a judge for their behavior. That’s the way its supposed to work.
KT | 01.02.08 – 6:40 pm
KT’s comment was directed at me, but his/her opinion was that I was getting some facts wrong both by accepting what Fitzsimmons had written about this case and through a couple of assumptions I made myself. At this point, I have no way of knowing who’s telling the truth (KT declined to leave any contact info), but some of what he/she says actually makes a bit of sense: if Rivard was just some lone addict forging prescriptions to get her pills, it wouldn’t make much sense to make her an informant. She was likely involved in some larger network of people forging prescriptions and selling oxycodone tablets.
As for Fitzsimmons, his belief that this case represents some grand departure from the normal use of confidential informants has no basis in reality. This outcome is often what happens when people snitch in order to get more lenient treatment. In theory, it’s supposed to yield some kingpin, but that’s rarely what actually happens. What often happens is that the informant rolls over on some easy target like Storedahl. The story here is not that this case is an aberration, it’s that messes like these have become commonplace.
As for Storedahl, commenter KT is not the only person who believes that he wasn’t just some random innocent target, but was just as involved in dealing prescription drugs as Rivard (see the comments at the end of the Daily News Online article). None of this is proof of anything, but it is interesting that Storedahl is a son of a local businessman. There are still a lot of questions in this case that have still gone unanswered. How did the Rivards know Storedahl and had access to his house? Was he a customer? A friend? Who was the first person sent to jail by Rivard and what were the circumstances of his arrest? Why was law enforcement using Rivard as a snitch even though with prescription drug fraud there’s not likely a “kingpin” to take down anyway? Is Rivard getting the book thrown at her because she really tricked the police or because she targeted the wrong person? It seems like the only thing I really know about this case is that the editor of the Longview Daily News wants to me to “lighten up” when it comes to my concerns over what can go wrong when confidential informants are used by law enforcement.
I can only guess at the plotlines in the upcoming season of The Wire, but I’ve gained a very clear picture of how the media has failed to tell us the bigger story behind the drug war. Whether we’re talking about inner-cities or small towns, heroin or OxyContin, young black men dealing on a street corner or wealthy white kids dealing out of their parents’ suburban house, newspapers across the country seem uninterested in doing anything more than parroting the view from law enforcement that the war is necessary, the victims deserve what they get, and the tactics should not be questioned. It’s time for someone to tell this story with the kind of honesty and insight that will finally break down the illusions that have been mistaken for reality for so many years.