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The Role of Undercover Police Officers

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There are many roles that police officers and police departments take on. One of the most interesting roles that they take in my opinion is the role of undercover police work. It is one of the most unique jobs an officer can have; they, in a sense are living a double life. These operations are very secretive and undercover officers can be used in huge operations to take someone down or simply just talking to people on the street to gain more intel about certain crimes. Undercover work is also very tricky because at any moment in time the officers could be made out to be not who they say they are and the operation could be ruined, or worse, they could be severely injured or killed. Undercover work is sometimes considered controversial, because sometimes they have to break the law to enforce the law (Joh, 2009). These officers may sometimes suffer from stress, alcohol or drug abuse, and extreme anxiety while undercover, some have a difficult time reintegrating back into society after the operation. Undercover police work has been romanticized in television; however undercover officers have many duties and take a lot of risks with their lives and the lives of others while trying to bring justice to the public.

After completion of the police academy and after officially becoming a police officer, the first thing an officer has to do in order to be considered for an undercover operation is to pass the many phases of the tests they are given. Even with completion of these tests it is not always guaranteed that they will be chosen for an operation. The tests include many physical evaluations that test the candidate’s flexibility and stamina, academic tests, and psychological tests (Farmer, 2003). An extensive background check is also performed, the officer must have extensive experience in the field, so it is not likely that right after you become an officer you will be chosen for undercover work. Undercover officers must be prepared for the work that they are about to do. Some operations can take years, and some just a couple of days. Sometimes the officers could be working with other undercover officers, or they could be working solo on the operation. The officers are living double lives, they need to be prepared for the stress that they are about to take on while working undercover.

There are many types of undercover operations that officers deal with. According to Joh (2009), there are three distinguishing types of undercover work, “(1) surveillance or intelligence operations, which are the most passive activities, followed by (2) preventive operations, which take a more active approach, and (3) facilitative operations, which require the most active involvement of the police” (p. 163).

Surveillance operations are highly based on deception techniques to gather information. The main role is to collect information not to influence people to commit crimes. Officers are usually sent to places to collect this information, for example, schools, bars, or prisons (Joh, 2009). Secondly, there are the preventive operations which are used to try to stop the offenses from taking place; they may divert the suspect (Joh, 2009). And lastly there are the facilitative operations; this is when the officers encourage the offenses by strengthening the suspects. The officers sometimes may provide aid or goods to the suspects. This type of operation is the most controversial, because many think that an officer breaking the law to enforce the law is not justifiable (Joh, 2009).

Undercover officers are most likely going to be working with highly dangerous criminals. Some of the operations they could be involved with are huge drug operations, and depending on how far into the operation they are the more dangerous it could get. This profession can be very dangerous, and takes a very strong individual to take the role on. They are isolated from their families and friends for what could be a very long time. They hang out with criminals all day and could be forced to do criminal acts to prove themselves to the criminals that they are hanging out with. Most of the time they do not just get to go home to their normal houses every night, they are staying, eating, and breathing with these people. Being around these types of criminals every day could very easily change a person, or cause them long term problems. They are putting their lives at risk every day by just being around these people and being around the crimes that they commit. They are also always at risk of blowing their cover or having someone find out that they are not who they say they are. This could lead to their death if they are found to be un-loyal and even worse to the criminals, a police officer. But sometimes with high risk comes high reward if the operation is a success, they could take down very powerful organizations, or convict highly dangerous criminals.

Participating in crime is something officers may have to do in the undercover operations. According to Joh (2009), “the two main reasons that they do participate in crime is (1) to provide opportunities for the suspects to engage in the target crime, and (2) to maintain a false identity or to facilitate access to the suspect” (p. 165). Cops are allowed to participate in crime only if it furthers the objectives of the operation. The boundaries of this rule are slim, and some cops cross the line and become criminals themselves because they are so caught up in the double life they live. Pretending to be drug dealers, gun buyers, or even in reverse stings they can provide drugs to the suspects, these are all examples of when the officers provide opportunities for the suspects to engage in crime (Joh, 2009). While engaging in crime the officers have to be very careful about innocent people getting hurt, they don’t want anything to happen to people who are not involved in the criminal acts. Criminals often tend to test the undercover officers loyalty by making them participate in crimes, this is when they have to maintain their identity so they sometimes do participate in the crimes asked of them (Joh, 2009).

Officers have to be very careful with how they go about these operations. The question of entrapment is sometimes raised during the conviction of the criminals. Entrapment is explained as if the offender wasn’t under these circumstances given to them by the undercover agent; they would not have committed such crimes. In other words, they claim that the undercover forced them into breaking the law, and they never would have done such things if they weren’t forced. This complicates things that police officers are allowed to do. It is a very thin line that they have to be careful of not crossing, because if the accused mentions entrapment in court and it is accepted by the judge, the whole case could be thrown out and all of their hard work could be for nothing (Hay, 2005).

In some rare cases undercover officers have faced prosecution for the crimes they have committed while undercover. In order to actually convict a police officer of these crimes you have to prove that they had the mental state to actually want to commit the crime. For example, as Joh (2009), states, “many (though not all) drug possession offenses require a specific intent to sell or distribute. An undercover officer who only pretends to be a drug seller will lack any such specific intent; the mental state of the offense required for criminal liability does not exist” (p. 169). Therefore the officer would not be convicted for drug possession because they didn’t actually want to sell the drugs. The court would also take into consideration the previously stated rule that police officers may commit some crimes only if it furthers the objectives to the undercover operation in progress.

Officers that are undercover have to be okay with going with the flow, there are no guarantees of how these operations are going to play out. They can be given orders from the department but it is hard to judge how people are going to react to certain things. If they don’t react how they expected them to, they need to be quick on their feet and make good judgment calls to get the operation back on track (Joh, 2009). They have to do all of this without blowing their cover; this could be very stressful and could sometimes leave them no room to hesitate to do certain things, or it could force them to make decisions without permission from their higher up. They have to keep their safety in mind along with the innocent peoples safety around them.

If the operation is a success officers could be given the highest praise and respect for the work that they have done. Sometimes if the operation has been in effect for a long time, and is still yielding no results they may pull the officers out of the operation, an unsuccessful mission and a waste of money, the officers time and energy. This could lead to frustration from the officer for putting so much time into it and getting no results. Often times officers need to be aware that even if the operation is successful, they could be given no credit for their role in the operations. These operations are very top secret, and in order to protect the undercover officer after the operation is over they sometimes don’t give them credit. If their role ends up convicting many people they most likely will anger people close to the criminals and then they could potentially be in danger from people wanting revenge.

The officers are often looked on as being “rats” by the criminals they were working with. Their friends and families could also be at risk for danger if the undercover officers name is publically praised. Protection of the officers, their friends, families, and the police station they work for, is the main priority after completion of the job. Because of the potential danger they face after the operation, they are sometimes not publically credited with doing the work, which could end up making the officers mad especially if the operation took years and physically and mentally drained them. This is another thing that the officer needs to keep in mind; they need to be strong and humble individuals that are okay with not being credited for the operation.

Working undercover is a high risk job, having a high risk job can very often lead to long term psychological problems. This is something an undercover officer also has to take into consideration when applying for this type of job. Stress is something that has a high chance of happening on the officer, the transition from your undercover job to your normal life is sometimes hard and very stressful (Love, 2008). Personality changes are also something that commonly happens; paranoia often follows them when they are done with the assignment. They could be paranoid to think that they will always be in danger from the criminals they were working with; they also could be paranoid that someone is going to hurt their family.

This could potentially put them in a constant state of suspicion of everyone. When you are hanging out with hardcore criminals for a long period of time you could possibly take up some of their actions, and you tend to grow a hard exterior. Extensive isolation from the officers’ family and friends is a huge stressor as well; being away from loved ones for that long is another factor for a personality change within the person. Personal relationships are often ruined because the officer goes through so much while undercover and has a hard time coping with coming back into civilian life. Another thing that could happen is officer burn out, where officers are on the undercover job for so long that they just get tired of it physically and emotionally (Love, 2008).

The transition in and out of the undercover work is highly stressful and often causes noticeable changes in the officer. Drug and alcohol abuse can also often stem from their experiences while undercover. They are often around people who drink and do drugs all of the time, so to blend in they might have to participate in them. If these changes occur the officer is often in denial of them, which leads to more stressors for them because they don’t realize that they have changed or don’t want to accept that they have let the operation change them ( Love, 2008). And finally there is a risk of developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, from the things they have witnessed or even things that they themselves have done while undercover. These are all things that could change an officer’s life after completing the operations, and is something to take into consideration (Love, 2008). These conditions could also lead to lifelong counseling and even in the worst situations, termination for psychological reasons.

The role of undercover police officers is a very unique and dangerous job. There are many rules and regulations that they must follow while undercover so that they don’t cross lines into entrapment of the criminals. This unique job could have officers being undercover for years, and have them going deeper and deeper into huge criminal operations. Officers often may have to commit crimes themselves, but they must be careful that they are only committing these crimes so that it can further the operation without hurting anyone in the way. They also have to be careful of crossing a line and becoming criminals themselves, or getting caught up in the operation and letting it take over their life. Danger follows the officers everywhere while being undercover.

They risk their lives by being around criminals and all of the crimes they commit; they also are always at risk of being caught for being a police officer and not a regular person. If a constant state of danger wasn’t enough, officers are at a very high risk of developing personality disorders, anxiety, and drug or alcohol problems from being undercover. Undercover police work is often romanticized in the media and in television shows; they make the job look super exciting and having huge rewards in the end with no aftermath of psychological problems. While the job could look to be very exciting from the outside, the job of an undercover police officer is a very stressful and dangerous occupation; it takes an exceptional officer to be able to go undercover successfully.


Farmer, Suzanne. (2003). Becoming an undercover police officer: a note on fairness perceptions, behavior, and attitudes. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24, 373-387.
doi: 10.1002/job.196
Joh, Elizibeth. (2009). Breaking the law to enforce it: Undercover police participation in crime. Stanford Law Review, 62, 155-199. Love, Kevin. (2008). Symptoms of undercover police officers: A comparison of officers currently, formerly, and without undercover experience. International Journal of Stress Management,15, 136-152. Craig, David. (2003). The right to silence and undercover police operations. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 5,112-125. Hay, Bruce. (2005). Sting operations, undercover agents, and entrapment. Missouri Law Review, 387.

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