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Being undercover refers to the act of a person disguising his individual identity or utilizing an assumed identity to gain the trust and confidence of the targeted individual or organization, to learn secret information, or gain evidence. Law enforcement officers who perform their duties undercover are called undercover agents. Undercover work is a technique that has been utilized by law enforcement agencies in various ways.

According to Marx (1988), the initial organized undercover program was used first in France at the beginning of the 19th century by Eugene Francois Vidocq. In 1883, the Special Irish Branch (renamed later as Special Branch) was established in Britain while the Italian Squad was founded in the United States in 1906.

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It is worth pointing out that in the last decade, undercover work has faced significant expansion in scale, as well as the change in form and manner of its performance. For instance, in the last fifteen years, it is estimated that the number of police seizures involving undercover work doubled. Also, a $3.8 million increase in funding for the operations of FBI undercover operations was witnessed between 1978 and 1981.

Traditionally, police officers have been deployed undercover to curb vice crimes, drug offenses, and political crimes; however, recently, FBI investigations have been extended to insurance fraud, political corruption, labor racketeering, street offenses, and white-collar corruption. Traditional undercover work that involved police officers making solitary seizures has been replaced with coordinated teamwork involving technological aids, as well as numerous agents and informers.

This increase in scope has attracted the attention of other government agencies that have seemingly increased their use of undercover operations for inspection and audit purposes. For instance, policewomen from the anticrime decoy squad, to curb prostitution have posed as prostitutes and made arrests on their male customers. This paper examines the advantages and dangers of deploying police officers "undercover".


According to Newburn, Williamson, and Wright (2007), undercover operations have over the years, been seen as a fundamental police tactic for fighting crime and is performed by elite units that have been carefully chosen. As a result, intense competition has been witnessed among police officers who want to be considered for such assignments.

Along with the prestige, professional recognition, and financial gain that comes with undercover work, there are other numerous advantages of the job which explains the stiff competition involved. For instance, lack of supervision, uniform, badge, work schedule, and work station have left officers at liberty to set their working time. The power that comes with working independently is hard to underestimate.

In the recent past, the scope of undercover operations has been expanded to include curbing street crime. The traditional methods of investigation may not be effective in curbing such crimes; however, when undercover police are on the streets, they can monitor what is happening and make arrests where applicable.

For instance, street crimes such as bribery, which happens daily, can be curbed more effectively by agents than their counterparts in the traditional investigative setting. This also applies to crimes that are well-organized or those that involve powerful and intimidating groups like drug cartels.

According to Marx (1988), where undercover agents have witnessed a crime taking place, conviction rates have been significantly high, especially where videotaped evidence was presented in court. The knowledge that someone walking on the street maybe a policeman working undercover, not only enhances the feeling of safety amongst citizens but also has the potential of deterring crime.

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Despite the rewards of working as an undercover police officer, this job exposes law enforcement agents to great risks, stress, and temptations. "As is the case with informants, the secrecy of the situation, the protected access to illegality, and the usual absence of a complainant can be conducive to corruption and abuse" (Marx 1982, p. 176). Therefore, the undercover operation offers police officers an environment where they can gain leverage or retaliate against suspects who may not be liable to prosecution.

Key issues that police officers, who are deployed undercover face, include the need to maintain their identity, the danger of being discovered, as well as psychological and social effects of working undercover for a long time. To start with, undercover police officers are compelled by circumstance to live a double life within a new surrounding in an effort not to disclose their real identities (Girodo 1991).

This usually entails separation from family, friends, colleagues, and adaptation to a new environment with new challenges. This explains why there is so much stress involved in undercover operations. Secluded environments where officers work can easily drive one to great anxiety and depression.

Though data on divorce rates of undercover agents are not clear, it has been established that the job places a lot of strain on relationships because agents have to be secretive about what they do, making them unable to share their work problems even with their families. Also, the changes in lifestyle and personality associated with undercover work, the irregular work schedule, as well as the long duration of separation have been found to impact relationships significantly in a negative way (Marx 1988).

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Stress can also be caused by the lack of knowledge on when the investigation will end or lack of direction regarding the operation. According to Marx (1988), the amount of elaborate planning, expenditure, as well as risks associated with undercover operations can put pressure on undercover agents to succeed and this has the potential of causing significant stress (Brown & Campbell 1990).

It is worth stating that there is a huge difference between undercover agents and regular police officers about the stress they face. Bureaucracy and administration are the two key sources of stress for the regular police. Even though undercover police officers are not subjected to bureaucracy which gives them a lot of freedom, there is a downside to it as well. They have neither usual management by their seniors nor fixed working place, coupled with the continued contact with organized crime, predispose undercover agents to be lured into corruption (Brown & Campbell 1990).

As a result of the stress-prone working environment, agents have a likelihood of abusing drugs or alcohol. Some officers even become drug addicts due to the great stress they undergo. According to Brown and Campbell (1990), a higher alcoholism rate has been registered in undercover policemen compared to their ordinary counterparts, and stress is the key contributing factor because the surrounding under which they operate involves a liberal exposure to alcohol consumption, which when combined with isolation and stress may lead to alcoholism (Girodo 1991).

The police badge, a fixed workplace, radio call, supervisor, and outlined assignment have literal and symbolic importance in acting as a reminder to a police officer of whom he is. However, in the absence of the above as in the case during undercover operations, agents may forget who they really are especially with the criminal surrounding they find themselves in.

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As opposed to conventional police work, police officers deployed undercover tend to engage in activities that involve only criminals, which means that their working life is dominated by crime, and they have to pose as criminals to blend in with their targets.

It is worth mentioning that an agent's capacity to blend in and resemble criminals is the key to successful and effective undercover operations. Undercover work is very intense as police officers are expected to be on guard at all times, but some of them become addicted to their work owing to the power they enjoy from the job, as well as the protected contact with unlawful activities they have. It is vital to say that as they develop positive personal relationships, undercover police officers may feel guilty because of the deceptive role they play, which makes them betray the people who trust them.

Consequently, this may result in anxiety, or rarely, sympathy on targets. This fact applies, especially, when they infiltrate political groups, and they have to assume similar characteristics of the targets like age, ethnicity, class, or even religion. According to Marx (1988), this could lead to the conversion of some undercover police officers. Separation from the normal environment that an agent is used to and the desire to be accepted and liked by a certain criminal group can result in unintended outcomes.

Playing a criminal role during undercover operations may increase ambivalence and cynicism about the role a police officer plays, which in turn, can make it easy for him to rationalize illegality either for personal or agency goals. According to Vonnegut, "we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be" (1975, p. 15), implying that police deployed undercover may turn out to be consumers and perpetrators of the very vices that they are supposed to control if they play those roles for a long period of time.

An excellent example of the above scenario was witnessed on a police officer from Northern California who for one and half years took part in a "deep cover" operation, riding with Hell's Angels. During that time, the officer managed to arrest many criminals, including high-profile drug lords who were considered untouchable. Even though his effort was recognized and several people praised him, undercover work cost him greatly.

He became an alcoholic and a drug addict, and consequently, his family disintegrated and he was also unable to reintegrate into the police force following the end of the investigation. According to Linderman (1981), what followed was his resignation from police work and numerous bank robberies, which landed him a prison term.

Another example is of a police officer from Chicago whose work as an undercover agent entailed pretending to be a pimp and penetrating a prostitution ring. However, due to the long time he played the role, he became accustomed to such a lifestyle that even after the investigation came to an end, he continued with the pimp role (Linderman 1981). Consequently, he was suspended from his job.

The above examples just show the negative effects of undercover work on police officers, especially with regards to the difficulty they face in reintegrating back to their normal duties after investigations are finished. According to Girodo (1991), the lack of visible supervision, as well as etiquette and dres' rules gives agents the liberty to work at their own time, which may contribute to the reintegration problem since they have to shed their old habits.

Working in a free lifestyle environment associated with undercover work may also cause discipline problems to agents. Also, they may not feel comfortable when they are continually under the watch of their supervisors, and as a result, may take a suspicious, cynical, or even paranoid view of the world (Brown & Campbell 1990).

Also, undercover work is a temptation to many agents especially with regards to the financial rewards that they receive from corrupt dealings such as narcotics and gambling. Agents have high chances of engaging in illegal activities and not being detected by the law because of the nature of their work.

However, such an approach has the potential of causing trust issues between agents and their bosses back at work because it will be difficult for their supervisors to know their real plans and intentions Manning & Redlinger (1977). Perhaps, the downsides of deploying a policeman undercover may help in explaining why J. Edgar Hoover was against the idea of having sworn agents playing undercover roles.

As already mentioned, undercover operations are associated with unpredictable schedules, unclear procedures, as well as lack of supervision, which means that police officers are granted a lot of freedom. However, because the expenditures of establishing an undercover operation are considerable, higher financial costs are incurred when mistakes are made in comparison to traditional investigations. As a result, this puts pressure on undercover agents to maintain accuracy, but at the same time being secretive about their operations. In the process, undercover agents may accidentally enforce the law against one another.

However, some of the cases are simply comical according to Whited (1974). For instance, an undercover agent (wearing mascara) who went for a walk with another man he had met earlier at a gay bar, after hearing suggestive comments from his partner, decided to arrest him. However, what the undercover agent did not know was that the man he arrested was also an agent, who also was hoping to arrest him.


To conclude, deploying police officers to work undercover has its advantages and disadvantages. It is up to law enforcement agents interested in undercover work, to evaluate the issues raised in this paper, before they make an informed decision, on whether they should join undercover operations or not.

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