Being undercover is disguising one's own identity or using an assumed identity for the purposes of gaining the trust of an individual or organization to learn secret information or to gain the trust of targeted individuals in order to gain information or evidence. Traditionally it is a technique employed by law enforcement agencies around the world and a person who works in such a role is commonly referred to as an undercover agent.

History[edit | edit source]

Undercover work has been used in a variety of ways throughout the course of history, but the first organized undercover program was first employed in France by Eugène François Vidocq in the early 19th century. The English set up the Special Irish Branch (later to be named just Special Branch) in 1883 and in the United States the ‘Italian’ Squad was set up in 1906 before different federal agencies started to run their own undercover programs.[1]

Risks[edit | edit source]

There are two principal problems that can affect agents working in undercover roles. The first is the maintenance of identity and the second area is the reintegration back into normal duty.

Living a double life in a new environment presents many problems. Undercover work is one of the most stressful jobs a special agent can undertake.[2] The largest cause of stress identified is the separation of an agent from friends, family and their normal environment. This simple isolation can lead to depression and anxiety. There is no data on the divorce rates of agents, but strain on relationships does occur. This can be a result of a need for secrecy and an inability to share work problems, the unpredictable work schedule, personality and lifestyle changes and the length of separation can all result in problems for relationships.[3]

Stress can also result from an apparent lack of direction of the investigation or not knowing when it will end. The amount of elaborate planning, risk, and expenditure can pressure an agent to succeed, which can cause considerable stress.[4] The stress that an undercover agent faces is considerably different from his counterparts on regular duties, whose main source of stress is a result of the administration and the bureaucracy.[5] As the undercover agents are removed from the bureaucracy, it may result in another problem. As they do not have the usual controls of a uniform, badge, constant supervision, a fixed place of work, or (often) a set assignment could, combined with their continual contact with the organized crime, increase the likelihood for corruption.[4]

This stress may be instrumental in the development of drug or alcohol abuse in some agents. They are more prone to the development of an addiction as they suffer greater stress than other police, they are isolated, and drugs are often very accessible.[4] Police, in general, have very high alcoholism rates compared to most occupational groups, and stress is cited as a likely factor.[4] The environment that agents work in often involves a very liberal exposure to the consumption of alcohol,[6] which in conjunction with the stress and isolation could result in alcoholism.

There can be some guilt associated with going undercover as a result of betraying the trust of those who have come to trust you. This can cause anxiety or even, in very rare cases, sympathy with those being targeted. This is especially true with the infiltration of political groups, as often the agent will share similar characteristics with those they are infiltrating like class, age, ethnicity or religion. This could even result in the conversion of some agents.[3]

The lifestyle led by undercover agents is very different compared to other areas in law enforcement, and it can be quite difficult to reintegrate back into normal duties. Agents work their own hours, they are removed from direct supervisory monitoring and they can ignore the dress and etiquette rules.[7] So the resettling back into the normal police role requires the shedding of old habits, language and dress. After working such free lifestyles, agents may have discipline problems or exhibit neurotic responses. They may feel uncomfortable, and take a cynical, suspicious or even paranoid world view and feel continually on guard.[4]

Plainclothes law enforcement[edit | edit source]

Undercover agents should not be confused with law enforcement agents who wear plainclothes. This method is used by police and intelligence agencies. To wear plainclothes is to wear "ordinary clothes", instead of wearing a uniform to avoid detection or identification as a law enforcement agent. Plainclothes police officers typically carry normal police equipment and identification. Police detectives are often assigned to wear plainclothes instead of the uniform typically worn by their peers. The principal difference is that undercover agents will often work under an assumed identity whereas plainclothes police will normally use their own identity.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Marx, G. (1988). Undercover: Police Surveillance In America. Berkeley: University of California Press
  2. Girodo, M. (1991). Symptomatic reactions to undercover work. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 179 (10), 626-630.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Marx, G. (1988). Undercover: Police Surveillance In America. Berkeley: University of California Press
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Marx, G. (1988). Undercover: Police Surveillance In America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Brown, Jennifer; Campbell, Elizabeth (1990-10-01). "Sources of occupational stress in the police". Work & Stress 4 (4): Volume 4, Issue 4 October 1990 , pages 305–318. doi:10.1080/02678379008256993. http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a782548838~db=all. Retrieved 2008-06-15. 
  6. Girodo, M. (1991). Drug corruptions in undercover agents: Measuring the risks. Behavioural Science and the Law, 9, 361-370.
  7. Girodo, M. (1991). Personality, job stress, and mental health in undercover agents. Journal of Social Behaviour and Personality, 6 (7), 375-390.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • The Decoy Man: The Extraordinary Adventures of an Undercover Cop, Charles Whited. Playboy Press/Simon & Schuster, 1973

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