Four years ago, no one aside from the officers she was working with was supposed to know Rachel Hoffman was a confidential informant for the Tallahassee Police Department (TPD).
It was a loosely guarded secret. The gregarious, copper-haired 23-year-old Florida State graduate told friends the day she signed on in April 2008.
All she needed to do, she explained, was help police catch a couple of low-life drug dealers and she’d finally be done with Tallahassee, leaving behind her own past troubles with the law that kept her stuck here, and a recent marijuana bust at her apartment that threatened to send her to jail.
Hoffman's friends, worried about the scale of the deal, which included $13,000 in cash to buy cocaine, ecstasy and a hand gun; but she didn’t.
“Pooh Bear” — Hoffman's main police contact, TPD Investigator Ryan Pender—and other officers would be watching her the whole time, she assured them.
Her friends were right. Things went wrong, lots of things.
On May 7, 2008, after the doomed buy-bust operation intended to go down at Forestmeadows Park fell apart, all police could find of Hoffman was one black flip-flop on nearby dead-end Gardner Road.
“That’s a day that’s ever-burned in my memory,” said Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones at the time. “I will never forget.”
In the end, nothing about police informant Rachel Hoffman would be confidential.
She would become the catalyst for mandated improvements to Florida’s rules governing the use of informants and a national symbol for a secretive and shady law enforcement practice that experts say puts people at risk and needs reform.
“It will always be a part of me and a part of this agency,” Jones said in a recent interview in his office at TPD headquarters. “We will always remember Rachel.”
Four years after her killing, the specter of Rachel Hoffman still haunts TPD.
The would-be drug dealers, step-brothers in-law Andrea Green and Deneilo Bradshaw, are serving life sentences in prison for the Hoffman murder and no officer was criminally charged in the case. But the department was sharply rebuked for its role in events leading up to her death.
While police were quick to point out that Hoffman followed Green and Bradshaw away from the park against Pender’s orders, the department’s own internal affairs investigation and that of the state Attorney General’s Office found multiple violations of department policies and procedures related to officers’ handling of Hoffman.
A scathing Leon County Grand Jury report said officers were negligent in Hoffman’s death.
Pender was fired — though he fought and won to get his job back — while Jones and his deputy chief were reprimanded and four other supervisors were suspended without pay for two weeks. Just this year, a final chapter in the Hoffman case was written when the city publicly apologized and settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Hoffman’s parents for $2.6 million.
Seared by scrutiny and criticism, only now is the department back to using confidential informants regularly, Jones said.
“No one likes to say, ‘We made a mistake, we could have done it better.’ That’s obviously what we learned from this, we can do it better,” Jones said. “It was a wake-up call.”
For six months immediately following Hoffman’s death, the department suspended the use of all CIs. For a long time, no one wanted to work narcotics cases, which often rely on informants, the chief said.
“We had to be confident in our investigators that they were ready,” Jones said.
An audit of department confidential-informant files conducted about six months after Hoffman was killed found lax record keeping and noted areas of improvement.
Personnel were moved, the vice unit was made a part of the Criminal Investigations Division of a new Special Investigation Section, and supervision was stepped up.
Today, TPD’s rules governing the handling of confidential informants mirror that of Rachel’s Law, which was spearheaded by Hoffman’s parents and provides some safeguards for vulnerable informants.
“I think we’ve got a very good policy now,” Jones said. “We have elevated ourselves and are back in the lead and set the tone for the state.”
TPD’s policy, an update of which was begun in January 2008 but was taken up with urgency in the wake of Hoffman’s death, went from five pages to 11 pages.
It calls for specific training for all officers who use confidential informants and requires, among other things, that a prospective CI’s experience, state of mind and risk of physical harm be taken into consideration before they are used.
The documents required for all confidential informant files increased from seven to 15, and specifies that CIs who reveal their status or fail to follow orders may need to be dropped.
“We now have a better handle on what we require before we put a confidential informant into a situation,” Jones said.
All operational plans now are required to be approved by a chain of supervisors, including the chief. The plan for Hoffman’s buy-bust operation, Jones said, “didn’t receive the review it needed” and lacked key information that contributed to the deal going awry.
“There is an awareness level now … that we have to really take that extra precaution. It’s safety, safety, safety first,” he said.
The result has been fewer confidential informants making the cut. An audit of TPD’s confidential informant files in September showed all forms were completed properly and just six informants were being actively used.
“With the tightening, it’s made it even more difficult to keep confidential informants,” Jones said. “We don’t want another Rachel Hoffman on anyone’s conscience.”
Protecting ‘Future Rachels’
Statewide, law enforcement officials say the Hoffman tragedy and Rachel’s Law did not drastically change the use of confidential informants by agencies, most of which, they said, already had adequate policies and procedures.
But the incident and new law, passed in 2009, helped bring needed consistency.
“It used to be everyone had their own way of doing things,” said Roy Hudson, law enforcement coordinator for the Florida Sheriff’s Association, who helped craft the legislation.
The FSA, along with the Florida Police Chief’s Association, worked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to develop a uniform, model policy that reflects the requirements of Rachel’s Law and has been provided to all state law enforcement agencies.
“It made us drill down and get to the nuts and bolts of how we deal with confidential informants,” said Quincy Police Chief Walt McNeil, who was chief of TPD before Jones and is the current president of the International Association of Police Chiefs.
“The change in the legislation just really, and appropriately so, says law enforcement needs to make sure it does it right.”
Generally speaking, McNeil and others in law enforcement said, there was no need for widespread reform of police departments’ use of CIs.
“Most police departments value confidential informants and how important it is to keep them safe,” he said. “We are human beings and as human beings, we make mistakes, too.”
More than anything, what happened to Hoffman helped to dispel any complacency that may have existed among officers in the state who use confidential informants.
“It made everyone in this line of work think,” said Leon County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Ed Cook, who supervises vice and narcotics operations.
“Most of your larger agencies, it hasn’t affected greatly. It’s probably brought a lot of your smaller agencies to a new level.”
Still, added LCSO spokesman James McQuaig: “After Rachel’s death, every person who uses a CI re-evaluated every CI.”
Rachel’s Law sponsor, Florida State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the goal of the legislation was simply for law enforcement officials to reexamine their polices to make sure they could “protect the future Rachels of the world.”
“Hopefully,” Fasano said, “what we’ve got in place today will save that one person.”
A Turning Tide?
Outside of law enforcement, national confidential informant experts say Hoffman’s case helped create greater awareness among the public of the dangers and problems with a largely unregulated and shadowy aspect of the criminal justice system.
“Rachel’s Law was and is significant. It was significant for Florida and it is significant as an example for the rest of the country,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a Loyola Law School professor, author and renowned national expert on confidential informants.
“It’s a seminal event that educated and inspired others to think differently about the question.”
Delores Jones-Brown, director of John Jay College’s Center on Race, Crime and Justice, who co-authored a study published last year on the use of confidential informants in New Jersey, said the Hoffman case was important because it “sensitized people who might not otherwise be interested.”
Many people, she said, stereotype informants as sleazy, unsavory characters.
“Rachel Hoffman put a human face on the kind of people who may be asked by law enforcement to put their lives on the line and then not be cared for or valued,” Jones-Brown said.
Natapoff said she is particularly encouraged by how Rachel’s Law came to be through advocacy by a regular family. Absent the efforts by Irv Hoffman and Margie Weiss, who first reached out to Fasano and to whom he gives credit, there would be no Rachel’s Law.
“Look what that was; one young woman died, one family stood up and one state made a difference,” Natapoff said. “They set a precedent for families in other states that it can be done and it should be done. We have a long way to go, but it’s catching on.”
Not all, however, are as optimistic.
William T. Gaut, a retired captain of detectives for the Birmingham, Ala., Police Department and an expert witness in criminal-justice cases, doubts the broad impact of Rachel’s Law, aspects of which he said could easily be ignored by officers.
But he praised the mandatory training requirement and thinks some of the law’s provisions could help other young people such as Hoffman from getting in too far over their heads.
“More times than not, the problem lies with supervision,” Gaut said, referring to the Hoffman case. “As we know, nobody was looking at it.”
While the media attention will stem complacency among law enforcement officials for four or five years, Gaut cautioned: “History has a way of repeating itself.”
Jones said he is doing everything he can to help ensure that doesn’t happen.
“There is a need for CIs, we can’t do our job without them, but we are putting someone at risk any time they are in that situation so extra precautions have to be taken,” he said. “When we have someone’s life in our hands that’s a very big responsibility and we take that very seriously.”
As incoming president of the Florida Police Chief’s Association, he plans to offer a best-practices seminar for new chiefs based on his experience in the Hoffman case, including media relations and the importance of quickly assessing operations in high-risk departments.
In his early months on the job in Tallahassee, Jones said he made assumptions that policies were being followed and operations were being properly planned, reviewed and executed. He had not yet taken a hard look at the vice department when Hoffman was sent on her fatal mission, he said.
Even with the strengthened policies and renewed vigilance, however, Jones said nothing is a sure bet. He is reminded of the tragedy every time he looks at his dog Tally, which his daughters happened to bring home as a puppy the day after Hoffman was killed.
“Could this happen again? I would hope not, but I can’t guarantee it, because it is dangerous,” Jones said. “There are a lot of bad people out there who really don’t care about life.”
Jennifer Portman, a reporter for The Tallahassee Democrat, was a 2012 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of a story that appeared in The Democrat May 13, 2012 as part of her Fellowship. For the full version, please click here.