POLICE UNDERCOVER WORK
There are about 50 different types of work which a police officer can be assigned to, and almost all of them rely or depend upon the authority of a uniform. One of the most notable exceptions to uniformed duty is undercover work, arguably the most problematic area of law enforcement. Undercover work is one of the most unique investigative techniques available to law enforcement.
The theory behind not wearing a uniform is that it removes any impediments to acquiring information. It's part of the same intelligence-gathering function as surveillance, eavesdropping, use of informants, and espionage. It typically involves an assumed identity for a defined and considerable amount of time. Undercover work requires secrecy. It allows the police officer to circulate in areas where the police are not ordinarily welcome.
The job of the undercover officer is to "make cases", in other words, to gather enough information to enable a successful prosecution. The purpose is not so much to obtain proof of criminal intent, the personalities or lifestyles involved, but to obtain physical evidence (by purchasing drugs or other contraband) and become the complainant seeking an arrest warrant. Once the warrant is served, the officer's identity is usually revealed. Ordinarily, a large number of arrests are made because the undercover officer has maximized their contacts as much as possible (e.g. with the drug or crime ring) on their own or by "converting" one or more of their contacts into informants. A typical three-month operation may yield as many as 60 arrest warrants.
THE EARLY STAGES
Although there are many ways to initiate the undercover role, a typical pattern is to bring the undercover officer in as an acquaintance, business associate, or girlfriend/boyfriend of an informant, and then to distance themselves from that informant. Once it's clear to all the parties involved that the officer is single again, another undercover officer is brought in as the boyfriend or girlfriend of the first undercover officer. The key here is managing the informant because you don't generally want to take extra risks with an informant around when you don't really need them.
The ideal targets are the "big" dealers or criminals, but most officers usually start by going after the "small" fries, accumulating suspects and case material as they go. The police supervisor, and sometimes, the prosecutor make a decision early on about whether enough "mid-level" or "big" cases have been made so that the operation can be terminated. In most cases, the critical factor is continued safety of the officer(s).
Training of the undercover officer usually consists of on-the-job training. Additional training may involve a few short hours of instruction on how to identify drugs, contraband, terminology, and prices. Sometimes, a short course in criminal law and procedure is added. A system is usually put in place for the officer to turn over evidence on a systematic basis or en masse at one time.
THE MIDDLE STAGES
Undercover officers usually are allowed to create their own cover stories, and depending upon the type of crime involved (drugs, guns, contraband, gambling, "subversive" groups), will eventually need more support from the department. The need may arise, for example, to create false documents or computer records for the undercover officer. This is not ordinarily done with minor cases. The need may also arise for creating various kind of setup situations in which the undercover officer "proves" their criminality or loyalty by engaging in a staged showdown with regular police officers or other brush with the law.
The staged encounter may also be an opportunity to supervise the undercover officer. Since supervision and continued surveillance becomes more difficult as the operation progresses over time, undercover officers are often "busted" to give a progress report and let management know if they need more or less supervision.
THE LATE STAGES
Of all the kinds of police assignments, undercover work puts you at most risk of corrupting your integrity. At some point, the undercover officer may begin to lose perspective, and become emotionally attached to this type of work. This does not mean they become emotionally attached to the suspects, and become more criminal than cop. It simply means that the department overall must think about maintaining its integrity by calling in anyone who has been doing this kind of work so that they can salvage their usefulness as a regular police officer.
Danger and temptation play roles in the late stages. Undercover officers tend to get paranoid after a while, feeling like they have "cop" written across their foreheads. They will begin to feel insecure and anxious about regular work and continued employment with the department. They will often be amazed and astonished as some of the things they have experienced and the dangers they have faced. Usually, they're carrying their own gun at this point for personal protection or they've arranged some other form of their own private surveillance and protection from real or imagined dangers.
If paranoia develops, the undercover officer may start having dreams about engaging in criminal activity. They can't help it because subconsciously they succumb to temptation. The problem is worse in drug cases because the officer may not be unable to decline the inhalation, ingestion, or injection of controlled substances, although by strict policy, they should make every attempt to avoid illegal consumption, even alcohol, during the operation. However, if consumption occurs, one runs the risk of addiction, and the real possibility of neurological changes. Anyone who engages in participant-observation runs the risk of "going native", and it takes tremendous self-discipline to keep from doing so.
Many officers end their undercover assignment when they feel "burned out" or express their first concern about being "made" or express a desire to surface and become a regular officer. Supervisors normally do not try to talk anyone into staying undercover, although there is some concern for whether or not the appropriate cases have been made. Most departments allow a "debriefing" period of time to help them adjust after coming off undercover assignments.
SELECTION OF UNDERCOVER OFFICERS
In many cases, the undercover officer is new to the department, and something about their "looks" makes supervisors feel they are right for the job. They may have been interviewed and identified for such duty while attending the training academy or while waiting on some civil service eligibility list, but generally, they finish up a rookie year or two first as a regular officer. In rare cases, an applicant is sworn in secretly by the Chief and Personnel Officer the first day on the job. The department may have some special need in an ongoing operation for someone who fits the "mold" and a new recruit may fit the bill. Recruits from out of town are sometimes preferred, as are ethnic-looking recruits with foreign language skills and the occasional female. The reason for using new, inexperienced officers is that you may not want someone who thinks, looks, and acts like a cop, especially for internal affairs operations or certain political targets. You want someone who has still got a civilian mindset.
HOW TO AVOID BEING "MADE"
Just as some officers have the uncanny ability to spot criminals, some criminals have the uncanny ability to spot undercover officers. Two things that will automatically tip any drug dealer off are: (1) familiar customers introducing strangers who want to buy drugs; and (2) small-time users who suddenly want to buy large quantities. The idea behind requests for large quantities is to force dealers to contact their "connection."
Most professional criminals are keenly aware and ready for attempts to "flip" them over into becoming informants. They will be prepared for this with bail money set aside and a lawyer on retainer to set up an entrapment defense, guarantees of immunity, and/or a written salary agreement. Intermediate level criminals are also the group least likely to have addictions of their own. Top level criminals hardly ever make mistakes. The importance of combining undercover testimony with tape recordings or video recordings cannot be overstated, especially when dealing with a sophisticated criminal.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have perpetrators who are easily caught up in a "reverse" operation where the police officer is the one selling the product. Perps who usually get caught up in these kind of undercover operations are the small fries or "connections" who make stupid mistakes. Almost always, the mistakes are made while intoxicated, high, or fatigued in some way. However, even at this level, the criminal may make some attempt to "verify" someone's story, or check the undercover officer's cover out. Two of the most common things checked out are family history and employment; these, and perhaps, an acquaintance or two.
How the undercover officer dresses and what they drive are also factors. The clothing of drug addicts always doesn't fit right because they're constantly losing or gaining weight. By contrast, most undercover officers can't simulate this particular "fit" of clothing; they'll only look sloppy and carry themselves like they have their "street uniform" on. Scraggly beards that look recently grown also are a dead giveaway. The cars they drive are also too well-maintained. A dope addict's car usually has three different types of tires, a bunch a hamburger wrappers all over the inside, and screaming kids in the back.
There's also the way undercover officers give themselves away with their eyes. Their eyes are too full of life, and they seem to wear sunglasses all the time. A dope addict, on the other hand, will often stubbornly or masochistically blind themselves by not wearing sunglasses even when they should, and their eyes will look sunken, like they haven't slept in days.
Other cover-blowing moves include: being too sure about the price; constantly making phone calls during a deal; being too overeager to buy; offering sex in exchange for doing business; being too familiar; and being too unfamiliar.
Association of Undercover Officers
California Narcotic Officers Association
Gary T. Marx home page
How to Spot Undercover Agents
Law of Undercover Operations
Undercover School Operations
Adler, P. (1985). Wheeling and Dealing. NY: Columbia Univ. Press.
Fuller, C. (1998). The Art of Undercover: Techniques and Survival. Youngsville, NC: Law Enforcement Associates. [author's website]
Jacobs, B. (1993). "Undercover Deception Clues" Criminology 31:281-99.
Manning, P. (1980). The Narc's Game. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Marx, G. (1982). "Who Really Gets Stung?" Crime and Delinquency 8:165-93.
Marx, G. (1988). Undercover. Berkeley: Univ. of CA Press.
Miller, G. (1987). "Observations on Police Undercover Work" Criminology 25:27-46.
Moore, M. (1977). Buy and Bust. Lexington: Lexington Books.
Last updated: 09/12/04
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