Sign In | Create an Account | Welcome, . My Account | Logout | Subscribe | Submit News | Customer Service | Tearsheets | Media Kit | Home RSS

Undercover police work: difficult and dangerous

January 26, 2009
By George J. Bryjak

To gather information about ongoing and future criminal activity as well as disrupt these activities and arrest those involved, law enforcement agencies often use undercover employees (UCEs). Over the years UCEs have worked to combat organized prostitution rings, the manufacture and distribution of drugs, street gangs, outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) and extremist groups on both the political left and right including the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads, and militant separatist groups. Undercover assignments include short-term drug "buy and bust" stings that last for no more than a few hours to deep cover, long-term investigations that keep UCEs in the field for months or years.

Undercover work (especially for prolonged periods) can be hazardous to an officer's psychological and physical well being. To begin, for an undercover cop to pass for and be accepted as a criminal, he or she has to think and act like a habitual offender. The UCE is always on stage and must perform accordingly as one mistake could jeopardize the operation and/or place the officer in grave physical danger.

Undercover work subjects officers to varying degrees of stress. Pam Fitzgerald found that 66 percent of one group of officers reported that they "sometimes" or "always" experienced stress while performing undercover assignments. Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agent William Queen, who infiltrated the Mongols OMG, recounts his first contact with the group in a biker bar: "As we approached, I felt something in the pit of my stomach. Something I'd felt before on other undercover assignments. The edge I guess. Keeping me sharp, appropriately nervous."

Article Photos

Crime in America: an occasional series on myths and realities

As the UCE forms relationships with those he or she is investigating, feelings of ambivalence and guilt may ensue. As Fitzgerald notes: "The essence of all undercover investigations is that of developing relationships and ultimately betraying them." FBI agents Stephen Band and Donald Sheehan argue that if these relationships are not monitored, difficulties can arise. "Criminal suspects have good and bad aspects to their personalities, and UCEs often see both sides. UCEs may be especially reluctant to make cases against suspects with children."

At the conclusion of his deep cover operation with the Mongols, ATF agent Queen stated that "Hard-core gangsters would be going to jail today, but for years I'd been calling these gangsters my brothers. I was both proud of my work as an undercover agent and sad about the ramifications my work would have for some of the men I'd grown close to ... I knew their kids' names and they told me they loved me." Queen had no doubts that some of the Mongols he helped put in prison "would have died for me."

UCEs may find themselves witnessing offenses committed by members of criminal organizations, a scenario that can trigger a serious moral dilemma. Should they attempt to intervene and stop the crime, or remain passive and protect their undercover identity? In Dallas, a UCE feigned sickness (so as not to participate) and watched as gang members raped a woman in the course of a violent physical attack. The officer justified his inaction afterward, noting that he didn't want to ruin his credibility. Sociologist Gary Marx asks: "Would he feel the same way if his wife, sister, or mother had been the victim."

Loss of credibility leading to a blown identity while investigating violent criminals can be life threatening. ATF agent William Queen had no doubt that if the Mongols had discovered he was a cop they would have killed him on the spot.

Another sensitive moral issue is that of UCEs having sexual relations (to gain information) with individuals they are investigating. During the course of an undercover operation, a federal agent impregnated a member of the radical Weather Underground. The agent talked her into having an abortion, and the relationship ended when he was sent on another assignment. The woman never learned his true identity. Marx notes that the situation would have become more complicated "had she decided to keep the child, died in childbirth, or become mentally imbalanced."

Should there be limits as to what UCEs can and cannot do, to and with both criminals and noncriminals in the course of their work? Was impregnating this woman, then persuading her to have an abortion, morally justifiable? Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates (1978-1992) defended a policy of permitting undercover officers to become involved with targets of an investigation in a "romantic way," stating that to prohibit such activity could "seriously endanger" their lives.

UCEs may be attacked by citizens who believe they are criminals. In Los Angeles, an undercover officer was shot to death while purchasing heroin by three members of a community group attempting to rid the streets of drug dealers and users. A San Diego policewoman posing as a prostitute was stabbed by a transvestite in a territory dispute, that is, who had the right to walk a particular street.

UCEs are also exposed to physical danger at the hands of police officers who do not realize that they (the UCEs) are working undercover. In New York City a black UCE holding a suspect at gunpoint in a subway station was shot and killed by white officers who believed they had happened upon a robbery.

Psychologist Gary Farkus discovered a relationship between psychological symptoms and undercover work, including anxiety, loneliness, isolation, relationship problems and extreme suspiciousness. Feelings of isolation and loneliness are likely a consequence of what ATF agent Queen notes is one of the "cardinal rules" of undercover work. That is, "keep your friends and loved ones in the dark about the specifics of your assignment."

Most observers are of the opinion that psychological stressors are related to alcohol and drug use (and abuse) among many UCEs. In his study of 271 federal undercover agents, Michael Girodo found that as the duration of the undercover experience increased, rates of self-reported alcohol and drug use also increased. Upon completing an undercover assignment, officers may become angry, bitter and resentful if they believe their sacrifices have not been fully appreciated, or if their risk taking did not result in a sufficient number of criminal convictions.

After a prolonged undercover assignment, reintegration to everyday police work can be difficult. In his study of UCEs in the San Jose Police Department, Marx reported that many officers felt they "had changed after being in deep-cover operations," and some experienced transitional sentiments of no longer "feeling like a cop." One California officer commented on returning to uniform patrol duty after an undercover assignment:

"I'd see another patrol car, and I'd tense up in knots. I really felt like the crooks. It would take me a second to realize that 'hey, he's one of us.' People would flag me down and I'd just wave back and keep driving. They want a cop, not me. I'd find myself answering [radio] calls and flipping to my old [street] vocabulary. It was very embarrassing. I'm still having problems."

Officers returning from undercover work may also experience acceptance issues, "often feeling separate and distanced" from other officers who believe that UCEs get special attention from superiors.

In extreme cases reintegration is impossible. Gary Marx relates the story of a "deep cover" operation wherein an officer rode with the Hell's Angels for 18 months. This UCE was responsible for the arrest of numerous people, including previously high-level untouchable drug dealers, and was highly praised for dong a "magnificent job." However, the cost of doing outstanding police work was heavy drug use, alcoholism, the breakup of his family and the inability to adjust to everyday police work. The officer eventually resigned, committed several bank robberies and ended up in prison.


Now retired after teaching sociology at the University of San Diego for 24 years, George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale. The Enterprise "Crime in America" series is adapted from "Myths and Realities of Crime and Justice: What Every American Should Know," George J. Bryjak and Steve E. Barkan, 2008, Jones & Bartlett Publishers.



Band, S. and M. Sheehan (1999) "Managing Undercover Stress: The Supervisor's Role," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Vol. 68, pp.1-7

Farkas, G. (1986) "Stress in undercover policing" In J.T. Reese & H.A. Goldstein (editors), "Psychological Services for Law Enforcement, pp. 341-438, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Fitzgerald, P. (2004) "Undercover Officers at the Honolulu Police Department" Wendy Westie,

Giordo, M. (1991) "Drug Corruption in Undercover Agents: Measuring the Risk," Behavioral Sciences and the Law, Vol. 9, pp. 361-370

Marx, G. (1985) "Who Really Gets Stung? Some Issues Raised by Police Undercover Work," pp. 99-128, in "Moral Issues in Police Work," F.A. Elliston and M. Feldberg (editors), Totowa, New Jersey: Roman and Allanheld

Marx, G. (1988) "Undercover Police Surveillance in America," Berkeley: University of California Press

Marx, G. (1992) "Some Reflections on Undercover: Recent Developments and Enduring Issues" Crime, Law, and Social Change, Vol. 18, pp. 193-217

Queen, W. (2005) "Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America's Most Violent Motorcycle Gang," New York: Random House



I am looking for:
News, Blogs & Events Web