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How Rural Wisconsin Campuses Coerce Students into Becoming Drug Informants

I live and blog from Whitewater, Wisconsin, a small rural town with a UW System campus. The city proper has a population of just under fifteen-thousand, and the campus is easily the largest institution in Whitewater (with about twelve-thousand students).  At sister site FREE WHITEWATER, I write about my town’s politics, economy, and culture. 

Over the years, I’ve criticized the Whitewater Police Department’s use of confidential informants: young people bear the risks of middle-aged drug warriors’ ambitions.  See, from 2010, about the City of Whitewater’s former police chief, Jim Coan, The Utter Foolishness of Jim Coan’s Prohibition

It’s with interest that I’ve awaited a story about the use of confidential college-student informants at UW-Whitewater.  There’s been talk about the story, and it’s now out, from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. 

Sean Kirkby’s detailed story, Undercover students used in drug busts at some University of Wisconsin campuses, is thorough in its coverage, revealing in its reporting, and all of it well-written. 

I’d urge readers to review the entire story, as well as a companion story, Drug crime penalties are ‘huge’ for students.

A few highlights, below:

Use of informants is favored in Whitewater:

A member of the Walworth County Drug Unit, which arrested Butler, declined comment on whether the unit still uses students as informants. But UW-Whitewater Police Chief Matt Kiederlen says his department has used about 20 students as confidential informants during the past two years….

In all, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism communicated with 10 current and former UW-Whitewater students who were arrested by either the UW-Whitewater police or the Walworth County Drug Unit for selling drugs to confidential informants or possessing marijuana.

Nine were asked to become an informant. All but the unnamed student described earlier refused either because of safety concerns, not knowing other dealers or not wanting to turn in their friends.

A contradictory standard on students’ decision-making.  UW-Whitewater Police Chief Matt Kiederlen holds out a standard of decision-making that his own campus’s policies refute.  Here’s Kiederlen on students as adults:

“They’re no different from anyone else,” Kiederlen says. “Mom and dad tend to feel like they’re still in school, but the reality is that they’re adults and they’re making adult decisions. And there are adult consequences.”

Of course, they are still in school; someone should ask Kiederlen to look out his window. 

It’s obvious – from Kirkby’s story – that UW-Whitewater does treat students differently from older adults making adult decisions, as it uses game-like playing cards to explain policies to students:


Photo credit: Sean Kirkby / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Needless to say, that’s not a common way for middle-aged adults to receive information. 

Let’s be clear: Part of Kiederlen’s career rests on a middle-aged man intimidating much younger people into compliance with his drug-enforcement plans.  He’s not a middle-aged man among middle-aged men, working in an environment of equals. 

Kiederlen’s enforcement involves pressuring much younger and less experienced people. 

There’s risk in middle-aged men coercing much younger people into drug snares:

While becoming a confidential informant may help students avoid consequences, undercover operations can turn deadly.

Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old Florida State University graduate, was pressured in 2008 to be an informant after Tallahassee, Florida, police searched her apartment and found a small amount of marijuana and ecstasy. But the buy turned out to be an armed robbery, and the robbers killed Hoffman after discovering her recording device, says Lance Block, a Florida attorney.

Block, who represented Hoffman’s parents in a lawsuit following their daughter’s murder, authored a 2009 Florida law that regulates informant use, a practice he says contradicts law enforcement’s purpose.

“The police are supposed to protect us from harm, not subject us to harm,” Block says. “And when law enforcement intentionally expose untrained civilians into these highly dangerous operations, they’re not protecting them from harm … It’s one thing to get information from people secretly and confidentially. It’s another thing to throw them to the wolves, like they did with Rachel.”

If, after all, Kiederlen thinks he’s in the same adult position as, for example, a twenty-three-year-old woman, then he’s either obtuse or confused. 

‘Unknowns’.  Here’s Kiederlen on the risks:

“They [informants] are set up in such a way that if something is bad, they know what they can do to make themselves as safe as possible,” Kiederlen says. “We’re dealing with the drug world. It is unpredictable. We try with everything we have to predict putting them in the safest position we can, but there are always those unknowns.”

These ‘drug world’ risks are, after all, risks that Kiederlen and his force recreate.  It’s ‘safe as possible’ with the self-exculpatory, almost blithe observation that ‘there are always those unknowns.’

If Kiederlen wanted to sound shallow and indifferent, he’s succeeded. 

Kiederlen’s Presentation.  To get a sense of how Chief Kiederlen presents himself, embedded below is a clip from a City of Whitewater Council meeting where he spoke about his ‘personal philosophy.’ 

Readers will find this portion of the meeting from 7:10  to 13:00 on the video below. (UW-Whitewater Chancellor Richard Telfer introduces Kiederlen from 7:10 to 8:00, and Chief Kiederlen speaks from 8:00 to 13:00.)

Common Council Meeting 05/21/2013 from Whitewater Community TV on Vimeo.

Watching the segment yet again, I’m struck by how tense Chief Kiederlen’s presentation is; his manner appears about as tightly wound as anyone who’s spoken at a town meeting in years. 

And here we are, in rural America, where the drug war slowly, but too slowly, sputters out for lack of sense and reflection. 

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