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What is it like to work undercover?

Undercover Work? – What’s it Like?

As an undercover veteran, I was intrigued by this question when I spotted it in a  Quora forum. I was even more intrigued by the first of the answers. That answer is reproduced in full below. It is written by  Tim Dees, a criminal justice technology writer and consultant. His Quora profile adds that he is a retired police officer and criminal justice college professor, now writing on applications of technology in law enforcement and corrections.

The Author Undercover in Wales

Dees is therefore an academic now and a popular one at that! His answers on Quora have exceeded 500k in the past 30 days! He is a retired cop from Reno.

A lot of what he says below is correct, but I do take issue with certain aspects. I have interposed my own comments within the text of his reply.


“The role of the undercover (often referred to as “UC,” pronounced “you see”) cop is often misunderstood by the non-police public. Cops who are only working in plainclothes and/or grow beards or longer hair are sometimes thought to be “undercover” (sometimes this myth is perpetuated by the cops themselves when they want to appear more elite and mysterious) when they are still carrying guns and police ID, reporting to the police station every working day, and living at their regular residences.

In a true undercover role, the law enforcement officer divorces himself from his true persona. He doesn’t carry any police credentials, and carries a gun only when the role he is playing calls for it. He lives at a UC residence, contacts his agency only through his handler (whom he sees infrequently), and has a wallet full of identification and credit cards (assuming his role would have these) in his UC identify. He may have a complete criminal history, credit report and other background data established in the UC persona.

Some agencies use UC officers in the same communities where they’ve grown up or worked as regular officers. This saves money, but it invites special risk. Imagine sitting at a bar, talking with a criminal who believes you are a crook just like him, when a former high school classmate walks up and addresses you in your real name, asking if you are still with the cops. This can happen anywhere, of course, but the closer you are to home, the more likely it is to happen to you.”

This is a surprise to me. The risks of such a strategy are enormous. I don’t doubt the integrity of the author for one minute, but this sounds like an apocryphal story to me. In the USA in particular, the agency responsible for such a high-risk deployment would leave themselves wide open to a lawsuit from the family of the UC if he/she was to “disappear” while engaged on such a dangerous task.

Let me put it another way – if I had been asked to act as a UC in my current or even old stamping ground then I would have flat refused.

“The UC constantly walks a fine line because he is not supposed to break the law while working in the UC role. If he anticipates having to take part in a crime, the activity has to be approved in advance. Narcotics use must be strictly avoided, not only because of its illegality, but because the officer is as subject to becoming addicted as is anyone else. If the officer is later called to testify in court, an episode of narcotics use can reduce or destroy his credibility as a witness.”

This part of the answer falls under two separate headings. A UC is confined by the legal principle of ‘agent provocateur.” That means he cannot instigate a crime. He may go along with the plan to commit a crime in order to preserve his UC role. However, I agree that if that is the case then he needs to run that by his handler first. There are instances when it is not possible to notify anyone of the plans. In that instance, the skilled UC will use his discretion and do whatever he feels is right. He can justify his decision later at the appropriate time and let the lawyers argue about the niceties of the situation.

The second part of the above section deals with the use of narcotics while acting as an UC. It shows a complete lack of authority and/or extensive experience in this arena. To use the phrase “subject to becoming addicted” is laughable! Imagine this – the UC is so well infiltrated into a gang that regularly uses weed. The UC refuses to smoke any weed. Do I have to explain myself any further? There are many situations surrounding the use of drugs by a UC where it would be perfectly OK for him not to “use”, and it would not expose him as a “fake” or a cop. 

Dees also posits a view that the use of narcotics would leave the UC open to serious credibility issues in court. Again, the author displays real lack of credibility for me. Many UC’s operate in an intelligence gathering role. They never appear in court to give evidence. 

“An ideal UC is an amiable type who makes friends easily. You can fake that just so much. Spend enough time with people who like and trust you, doing what they do, and you’re likely to develop some affection for them, even though what they do goes against your moral principles. When the time comes that you have to betray their trust and take part in their undoing, there is a real sense of betrayal. UCs who are “under” for prolonged periods–years, sometimes–often need psychological counseling to deal with the conflict.

Local law enforcement UC operations generally last only a few months, at most, because of the cost and complexity of the effort. Occasionally, an agency will bring in an officer from another city or even another state to work as a UC. This is especially true in smaller communities, where anyone from the immediate area is likely to be known by someone in the targeted group.

Federal-level UC operations can go on for years. The feds have the resources to do it right–use a UC who has no known associates in the area where he’s working, fly him out of the area occasionally when he needs a break or a debrief, provide almost unlimited support for the persona. The investigation described in this video went on for about two and a half years, but FBI Special Agent Jack Garcia spent approximately 22 of his 26 years in the FBI working in UC roles.”

Unfortunately the video in question has been removed by You Tube. More’s the pity as I was looking forward to watching it. I have the greatest admiration for anyone who was a UC for 22 years. 

I was one for the best part of a year and that was plenty long enough!


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