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Pros/Cons of Under Cover Police Work

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Submitted By cupoj427
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Police officers can be assigned to numerous lines of work within an police department. A wide range of law enforcement duties generally require the officer to wear a uniform, representing his or her status as enforcer of laws, preventer of crime, and preserver of domestic peace. However, there is one controversial line of law enforcement that restricts the use of police a uniform. Undercover police work entails the practice of remaining in disguise during investigations of criminal activity. A police officer may assume a different identity acting as an undercover agent, as a method for gaining valuable information or evidence. Undercover work is by far the most dangerous and controversial areas of law enforcement. Nonetheless, undercover work is also one of the best investigative techniques implemented by police departments. The first plainclothes police unit was organized in France during the early 1800’s. Eugène François Vidocq has been recognized as the originator of the “Brigade de la Sûreté”, or “security brigade”. In his self-titled memoir, Vidocq explains the goals of his early undercover police network: “to procure information, to undertake searches, and to obtain particulars of every description; to make nightly rounds…to assist the commissaries of police in their searches, or in the execution of search-warrants; to explore the various rendezvous in every part; to go to the theatres, the boulevards, the barriers, and all other public places, the haunts of thieves and pickpockets.”[1]

Great Britain later developed their own national security forces called the “Special Irish Branch”, an undercover unit of London’s Metropolitan Police in 1883.[2] By 1905, Italian Americans in United States introduced their own program called the “Italian Squad”, an elite body of undercover police officers who pledged to reduce organized crime in New York City.[3] By the middle of the 20th century, many state and federal agencies began to enact their own undercover programs and strategies to strengthen their intelligence and fact-finding techniques.

The rationale behind not wearing a uniform facilitates the gathering of information about current and future criminal activity. Undercover police work shares similarities with other intelligence gathering functions such as eavesdropping, surveillance, espionage, and the use of informants to obtain information. An officer assumes an undercover identity for a defined and considerable amount of time. This requires total secrecy because this dangerous line of work allows the police department to examine and report criminal activity in areas that foster drug trade, organized crime, prostitution rings, street gangs, and political extremist groups. The objective of an undercover officer is to make a case; they must gather sufficient information and evidence in order to have a successful prosecution in court. Undercover work is necessary because highly intelligent criminals do exist and are and difficult to arrest. The purpose is not only to obtain evidence of criminal intent and the individuals involved but to obtain physical evidence as well. The officer then seeks an arrest warrant; once the offender is arrested, the identity of the undercover cop is usually revealed. After an undercover operation, it is likely that many more arrests will occur due to the large number of contacts that the police officer made while undercover, maximizing the extent of their contacts and informants. Selecting police officers to go undercover is a complicated task and requires comprehensive analysis and consideration of the potential undercover agents. Very few are chosen because of the difficult, stressful, and risky characteristics of undercover work. There are very few individuals who are mentally stable enough to cope with this line of work, let alone very few who fit the physical characteristics necessary for undercover work to occur without risk. Young, ethnic or multi-lingual rookie cops are ideal candidates for undercover work because of their physical attributes and inexperience suggest they are ordinary civilians; this notion is the basis for undercover work since agents to do not want to provoke suspicion by suspects or potential offenders.

As mentioned, an undercover officer is new to the department and supervisors generally chose them for the job because of the way they appear. Potential officers in the police academy may be identified for undercover work but are generally required to serve one or two years of regular police duty. Training procedures of an undercover officer is conducted through physical training and hands-on instructions that include seminars to educate undercover agents how to identify drugs and contraband while understanding the language, culture, and terminology of the unlawful environment they will covertly work in. Systematic guidelines are set in place for the undercover agent to follow as they gather evidence and other vital information.

Although it may appear that there are benefits to undercover police work, further determinants conclude that undercover police work has negative effects on those involved. Undercover police work is associated with dangerous crimes such as prostitution, drug possession and distribution, street gangs, and motorcycle gangs that take part in life-threatening criminal activity. Undercover police work involves an officer getting involved in these criminal acts from short periods of time to involvement that could span years, adversely affecting an officer’s physical and psychological well being. An undercover cop must act as unlawfully as a suspected offender; he or she has to think and act like a habitual law breaker. An undercover officer must perform accordingly to the risky conditions of undercover work as one mistake could jeopardize the operation and potentially place the officer in severe physical danger.[4] There is a lot of pressure on undercover officers to avoid being “made”, meaning the suspect has figured out the undercover agent’s true identity, ultimately endangering the officer’s safety. Here lies another disadvantage to undercover police work; though the undercover agent has the best intentions for this line of work, they must put on a deceptive appearance and act completely in opposition of the techniques and methods they have been accustomed to under police discretion and seeking justice. Undercover officers are usually faced with the dilemma of committing crimes themselves. If an undercover agent chooses to not commit a crime for the sake of the operation, it will damage their credibility, preventing them from acquiring valuable information. Further consequences include violence and even murder of the undercover agent if his or her actions are questionable to the suspected criminals. Another costly issue with undercover policing is permanently affecting the officer’s personality. Psychologists have discovered a correlation between negative psychological symptoms and undercover police work.[5] Many have concluded that undercover work often leads to loneliness caused by the duty undercover officers often have to face as they are away from loved ones with no specified amount of time until they can meet again. The undercover agent must also remain vigilant from those not affiliated with law enforcement of the details and nature of information he or she may know; this can cause anxiety, paranoia, and suspiciousness. Further parallels may include undercover agents themselves turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with this vast degree of stress and uncertainty. Undercover work may be effective but it is usually at the cost of the agent’s psychological well-being. Another issue with undercover policing is that the officer may be reluctant to make a case against the criminals they are associating with because of the personal relationships and attachment that could have formed during the operation. The aforementioned psychological effects such as loneliness and anxiety may cause one to fill voids in their personal relationships by embracing the criminal as a friend. While undercover, an agent sees all the positive and negative aspects in the criminal, leading to the possibility that a mutual and concrete relationship could have formed, ultimately botching the undercover operation. Undercover supervisors should closely monitor any relationships an undercover agent has and reinforce the goal of why the agent is undercover; to bring about justice and peace to the community at risk. The last issue with undercover policing is reintegrating an officer back to regular police work when undercover operation has been completed. An undercover operation definitely changes an officer’s outlook of their work because they have become aware of the two sides of law enforcement. This notion can be conveyed as an advantage of undercover police work because it can help the officer grow and diversify their values, attitudes, and social customs that shape him or her. However, undercover officers may also still have criminal mentalities developed while undercover which may lead them to committing crimes. Overall, undercover policing has historically proven to be a very effective method in provisioning law enforcement, though it stems from a generally unorthodox manner of preventing crime and preserving peace. Yet with this type of police work, the negative retributions that surface can harm an undercover agent’s basic moral and psychological development. They must place themselves in scenarios they wouldn’t normally enter into unless they were indeed corrupt. In sum, I feel that the negative effects outweigh the positive effect according to undercover police work. Though risky associations exist within our communities, including drug use, gang violence, and prostitution, an individual officer should not be launched into this world simply because conventional law enforcement intelligence capabilities are insufficient and yield unsatisfactory results. It is true; nonetheless, that learning by doing can help an undercover agent learn more about increasingly important criminal details if they are out in the field themselves. But it is where chain of law enforcement command should lead by example and control their authority over the most dangerous components of civil society; once all police officers act in accordance with the duty set forth by basic code of police conduct, then undercover operations can cease and police officers will not have to disguise themselves in order to obtain results.
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[1] Eugène François Vidocq, wikipedia.org/wiki/Eug%C3%A8ne_Fran%C3%A7ois_Vidocq

[2] Special Branch, United Kingdom, wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Branch

[3] Italian American Crime Fighters: A Brief Survey, August 2005 www.osia.org/documents/IA_Crime_Fighters_Survey.pdf

[4] Undercover Police Work: Difficult and Dangerous www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com/page/content.detail/id/504677.html?nav=5041&showlayout=0

[5] Ibid.

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