This post was originally published on Quora, in response to the question, “What does it feel like to be an undercover cop?”
In that post, the author, Tim Dees, talked about the difficulty undercover cops have when they have to testify against people they have pretended to befriend.
We have republished the answer with Dees’ permission.
The role of the undercover (often referred to as “UC,” pronounced “you see”) cop is often misunderstood by the non-police public.
Cops who are only working in plainclothes and/or grow beards or longer hair are sometimes thought to be “undercover” (sometimes this myth is perpetuated by the cops themselves when they want to appear more elite and mysterious) when they are still carrying guns and police ID, reporting to the police station every working day, and living at their regular residences.
In a true undercover role, the law enforcement officer divorces himself from his true persona. He doesn’t carry any police credentials, and carries a gun only when the role he is playing calls for it.
He lives at a UC residence, contacts his agency only through his handler (whom he sees infrequently), and has a wallet full of identification and credit cards (assuming his role would have these) in his UC identify. He may have a complete criminal history, credit report and other background data established in the UC persona.
Some agencies use UC officers in the same communities where they have grown up or worked as regular officers. This saves money, but it invites special risk. Imagine sitting at a bar, talking with a criminal who believes you are a crook just like him, when a former high school classmate walks up and addresses you in your real name, asking if you are still with the cops. This can happen anywhere, of course, but the closer you are to home, the more likely it is to happen to you.
The UC constantly walks a fine line because he is not supposed to break the law while working in the UC role. If he anticipates having to take part in a crime, the activity has to be approved in advance. Narcotics use must be strictly avoided, not only because of its illegality, but because the officer is as subject to becoming addicted as is anyone else. If the officer is later called to testify in court, an episode of narcotics use can reduce or destroy his credibility as a witness.
An ideal UC is an amiable type who makes friends easily. You can fake that just so much. Spend enough time with people who like and trust you, doing what they do, and you’re likely to develop some affection for them, even though what they do goes against your moral principles. When the time comes that you have to betray their trust and take part in their undoing, there is a real sense of betrayal. UCs who are “under” for prolonged periods — years, sometimes — often need psychological counseling to deal with the conflict.
Local law enforcement UC operations generally last only a few months, at most, because of the cost and complexity of the effort. Occasionally, an agency will bring in an officer from another city or even another state to work as a UC. This is especially true in smaller communities, where anyone from the immediate area is likely to be known by someone in the targeted group.
Federal-level UC operations can go on for years. The feds have the resources to do it right — use a UC who has no known associates in the area where he’s working, fly him out of the area occasionally when he needs a break or a debrief, provide almost unlimited support for the persona. The investigation described in this video went on for about two and a half years, but FBI Special Agent Jack Garcia spent approximately 22 of his 26 years in the FBI working in UC roles.