A Law School Faculty Member Takes His Research to the Streets

Robert Bloom examines that old street code, 'Thou Shalt Not Rat'

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The informer is considered the lowest of the low in the Irish-American neighborhoods of Charlestown and South Boston. So when legendary Winter Hill gangster James "Whitey" Bulger was revealed to have been an informant for the FBI, an enduring code of the streets was turned on its side.


Prof. Robert Bloom (Law) walks through his old Brighton neighborhood: "The question becomes whether the benefits associated with solving crime outweighs some of the governmental action associated with the use of informants...Is solving the crime consistent with letting the government sanction and participate in illegal activity?"
"It's a Southie Commandment: 'Thou Shalt Not Rat,'" said Prof. Robert Bloom (Law). "Turns out Whitey was King Rat."

Revelations of a devil's deal between the FBI and the notorious South Boston mobster, now a fugitive on the bureau's Most Wanted list, sparked the interest of legal scholar Bloom, a specialist in criminal procedure and himself a product of the Boston neighborhoods.

Bloom has since written a book, Ratting: The Use and Abuse of Informants in the American Justice System, that considers the role of the informer through history, from Judas Iscariot to Linda Tripp.

"The importance of the need for informants became graphic as 19 terrorists managed to wreak havoc in our country last Sept. 11," said Bloom. "My book concedes that much crime in this country could not be solved without the use of informants.

"The question becomes whether the benefits associated with solving crime outweighs some of the governmental action associated with the use of informants - for example, making it easier for someone like Whitey Bulger to continue his criminal enterprise. Is solving the crime consistent with letting the government sanction and participate in illegal activity?

"My book argues there are ways to have it both ways: Use informants, but put enough safeguards in place so as to prevent the abuses uncovered in the book."

Boston attorney Joseph Balliro Sr., president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and prominent as defense counsel in a number of highly-publicized organized-crime cases, doesn't mince words in his criticism of the use of informants.

"A rat is a rat is a rat," said Balliro. "The government procedure of using informants in many cases is abominable. To give a reward to an individual in exchange for his testimony against another individual undermines the justice in the criminal justice system."

Bloom, who now lives in Newton, grew up in the Boston neighborhoods that often have been the backdrop to the complex dance between policemen and rogues.

His was one of the few Jewish families in the tough Fidelis Way housing project in Brighton. Both his grandfathers were Russian immigrants. One was a Charlestown milkman who had no formal schooling beyond sixth grade but spoke six languages. The other was a Democratic ward-heeler in Mattapan and Dorchester who took young Bloom to the raucous election-night rallies once held at the old G&G Deli on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester.

A wayward pupil in the early grades, he took up studying, and won entry to Boston Latin, graduating from the then-all-male exam school in 1963. He then worked his way through Northeastern University and Boston College Law School, from which he took his law degree in 1971.

Bloom spent his early years as a lawyer as a civil-rights attorney, in Savannah, Ga., and says his view of the school-busing crisis in Boston in the mid-1970s was shaped by his own Boston upbringing. He recognized neighborhood loyalties in a city of ethnic enclaves would strongly challenge attempts to effect integration by judicial fiat.

Likewise, a Boston neighborhood code - of silence - traditionally has been brought to bear in the case of police informers. When the Whitey Bulger case struck at the heart of that code, while raising questions over unholy alliances between law enforcement and crime, Bloom had himself a topic.

The book begins with the most famous informer of them all - Judas, whose betrayal of Christ, Bloom says, has been attributed alternately to greed, ambition, jealousy - and even politics.

The book goes on to describes different kinds of informants, some used to infiltrate and destroy organized crime operations, and others, such as Linda Tripp, used to investigate government officials. These informants are motivated by a variety of reasons, including financial gain, political power, elimination of competition, and avoiding criminal punishment. Some are even imaginary, fabricated by police to justify their activity.

Bloom grounds his commentary in real cases, some well known, others obscure, and concludes by suggesting how potential and real abuses of the informant system can be curbed.

"I talk about why informants are necessary, what their motivation is, and how the law intersects with them," Bloom said. "I offer an overview of the practice of informing, and some suggestions on way to correct some of the shortcomings inherent in their use."

Prof. Mark Brodin (Law), Bloom's co-author on a previous book, Criminal Procedure: Examples and Explanations, said: "The topic he's writing about is critical in our society today because of law enforcement's resorting to informants, even before Sept. 11. We can fully expect informants will play a much larger role, a legitimate role in many cases. But history teaches there may also be abuses."

Bloom's consistent recommendation: Greater oversight. "Informants are needed to solve crime," he said. "But we need to be vigilant to a system that allows folks with sordid motivations to thrive."

 

Return to October 3 menu

Return to Chronicle home page