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Undercover Officer Safety

Author: Thomas M. Burton, October 1995

Thomas M. Burton served as a Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration from 1970-1995. During that period he served as a field agent in several offices, as a field supervisor and in several headquarters assignments that included three years on the DEA faculty at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Currently he is involved in law enforcement training and consulting.

To those engaged in police investigations, undercover operations offer the opportunity for increased efficiency. They allow you to penetrate criminal organizations not susceptible to other investigative techniques. Those gains, however, are not without their price. Placing officers in undercover roles exposes them to some physical and emotional dangers not normally present in police work. Properly structured undercover operations, however, can offer a high degree of safety.

Why Does Undercover Work?

Police managers would have a less stressful job if their subordinates never worked undercover. However, many modern criminal activities are only vulnerable to this investigative technique. These include crimes of narcotics, firearms and terrorism. Relatively unused before the 1960s, the undercover investigative technique is widely used today with excellent results.

Undercover operations can gather intelligence that would otherwise go unknown. Your objective may be to find out what kinds of criminal activity are taking place in your jurisdiction, to plan the use of resources or to try to keep a jump ahead of criminal patterns. Most often, of course, undercover operations are used to gather evidence on specific crimes, to thwart criminals who may be planning a crime and to facilitate the making of arrests and seizures.

The vast majority of police undercover investigations in the United States today involve criminal narcotics activity. I will focus on those cases. Narcotics investigations are the likeliest to use undercover operations and are the likeliest to involve injuries or deaths. So, while undercover operations are very useful law enforcement tools, their inherent risks make it imperative that we do our utmost to protect our undercover officers from the perils associated with the assignment.

Who Should Work Undercover?

If our objective is to perform undercover operations effectively and safely, then we must give careful attention to the choice of officers selected to work undercover. It is not enough that the undercover investigation gathers evidence or causes prosecutions. The operation is a success only if all the officers survive to go home to their families. The selection of the proper undercover officers has a lot to do with the overall safety of the investigation. What we have learned in this business--not always the easy way--is that the proper selection of undercover officers can increase the chances for a successful prosecution and increase the chances for a safe outcome.

The traits desired for a good undercover officer are not much different from those of any good investigator; they are just more critical. The candidate should be a good overall law enforcement officer and a good investigator. An officer who has not proven him or herself to be a solid performer as a street cop will not likely do well undercover and could be more at risk.

Only volunteers should be considered for undercover assignments. Officers should never be forced to work undercover nor should it be an element necessary for advancement or good performance evaluations. In fact, management should attempt to dissuade the feeling that you are not a complete investigator until you have worked undercover. Time and time again it is the officer who feels pressured to work undercover that puts him or herself at risk.

Most experienced police managers feel that undercover assignments should be given to officers who have at least three years of police experience and some investigative background. Those officers have the law enforcement skills necessary to make an undercover assignment safe and productive. Some police departments, however, still select officers from recruit classes to work undercover. Although there are benefits to this practice, the risks far outweigh the advantages. Recruits have not yet mastered the skills necessary to perform safely in undercover assignments.

Officers who have performed well in undercover assignments share several other traits. They tend to be resourceful, manipulative and assertive. They have well developed negotiating skills. They are professionally and personally mature and usually, have a stable family situation. However, officers who have high manipulative and assertive skills can also be a challenge for management if they are not closely monitored.

Potential undercover officers need to be able to follow instructions and be able to communicate regularly with their chain of command. It is one thing to have an officer who is a little independent working on the street or in an investigative unit, but quite another when he or she is working undercover. Working undercover exposes an officer to situations where they are separated from other officers and managers for periods of time.

Placing an officer who is an under-communicator into that situation is dangerous. One of the tricks to being safe while working undercover is for the entire law enforcement team to be alert for signals that something has changed or altered the chances for a safe conclusion to the operation. When an undercover officer fails to make his/her teammates aware of every nuance about the assignment something could be overlooked that has a bearing on the safety of the operation. Also, if management needs to change the direction of an undercover operation or needs to make rules concerning the operation, the undercover officer must be relied upon to follow those directives. Failure to do so could put him or her at risk. The role of an undercover Control Officer is essential in monitoring the undercover officer's well-being and cannot be overstated.

Now that we know the makeup of the perfect and safe undercover officer, reality sets in -- the perfect officer does not exist. However, using the foregoing criteria when you make your selection will help make your undercover operations safer and more productive.How Can We Prepare for a Safe Undercover Operation?

Undercover operations that are started with little advance notice and planning are not recommended. Many of the instances researched where undercover officers were injured showed that the operation was done at the last minute with only a minimum of planning. Undercover operations should always be well thought out, planned and prepared. Failure to do so can easily lead to a situation where your undercover officer is placed in an unsafe environment.

You should never put undercover officers in undercover roles without training. We would certainly not put recruits in a patrol car on the street without training. We would be placing them and our department in jeopardy. So it goes for undercover work. Formal training programs for undercover officers are available. You should make every effort to have current and prospective undercover officers attend. Meetings hosted by state law enforcement and state narcotic officers associations offer excellent training. Topics about vocabulary, legal issues, negotiating skills and electronics are important. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also offers training. It is preferable that the undercover officer attend a one- or two-week narcotics officers training program, but officers can benefit from short training courses such as those offered at local law enforcement meetings.

Do not overlook informal training as another excellent way to provide undercover training. Your department could devote an in-service training session to undercover matters with members of the office instructing. A great deal of knowledge also changes hand in the squad bay where experienced undercover officers recount experiences, telling about cases that succeeded; telling about cases that failed; and telling about the close calls when officers almost came into harm's way.

On the job training is not only important, but mandatory. Most good undercover operations involve more than one undercover operative, where an officer new to undercover can act in a supporting role to learn from what he or she sees and hears. Most senior undercover officers are happy to take a newcomer along if the script can accommodate more than one with the age-old admonition: "Just keep out of the way and don't say a word."

Reviews of undercover operations that have gone wrong -- where the safety of the undercover officer was compromised -- show that lack of advance planning was instrumental in causing the error. Groups, squads, or teams that do undercover work should establish a habit that no undercover operation will be undertaken without some planning. I have seen, and been involved in, undercover operations where there was no planning, where the undercover officer said, "Can you cover me for a couple minutes, I'm just meeting a crook at the fast food restaurant on Main Street, just going to talk." So off you go and no one knows your plans. Those instances are nothing more than a tragedy waiting to happen.

Planning for an undercover operation should include consideration of several important issues. The plans should include those trite topics of who, what, where, when and why. Who is going to be working undercover? Who are the crooks? Do all the other participants know them and what they look like? Exactly what are we going to do? Buy, talk, show or see? Where will the operation take place? Will the undercover operation move from the first locale to another? Moving is a common problem with undercover operations and often causes consternation. After an initial meeting the crooks and the undercover officers begin to move from that location. If the surveillance officers see movement but have not been told of the plans, they do not know what to do. They are left to wonder if the undercover officers are in jeopardy or if the move is benign. Exactly when will the meeting take place? This topic, of course, causes laughter among narcotic officers because narcotic violators are notoriously undependable. Even so, the plan should have a set ending time. If the undercover meeting has not begun by a certain time, the meeting should be canceled. Why are we having this meeting? The objectives must be clear so that everyone knows what to expect.

Planning for an undercover operation should also include decisions about whether electronic assistance will be used, what vehicles will be used, whether the undercover officers will be armed and any special assignments for officers involved. All officers involved in an undercover operation should be together at a meeting where the plans and objectives are discussed. The officers should meet the other participants including the undercover officer and the cooperative individual (if one is involved).

An operational plan must be written that incorporates all the plans and decisions made about the operation. This is an extremely important tool for undercover operations. An operational plan is an absolute requirement for safe undercover operations. The plan should be in a format agreed upon by management. It should be clearly written and distributed so that everyone involved has a copy. Numerous examples of operational plans are available. The style is not important, but using them routinely is important. The plan should contain a minimum of the following information:

  • Case Number
  • Date, time, and place of operation
  • Undercover officer(s)
  • Suspects -- with identifying data (attach photos if possible)
  • Surveillance officers with assignments
  • Street supervisor
  • Office supervisor
  • Control Officer
  • Vehicle descriptions with license numbers
  • Flash roll involvement
  • Radio call signs of officers
  • All pertinent phone numbers
  • Brief narrative of what is expected to happen
  • Emergency signals to be used by undercover officers
  • Location of nearest emergency medical care

You should distribute the operational plan to all officers involved in the operation, the radio room, the squad secretary, the supervisors and any other appropriate person. A copy should be kept in the case file for future use.

The importance of an operational plan cannot be overstated. This tool alone can make any undercover operation safer. It keeps everyone focused on what they are doing and reduces dangerous unplanned changes to the operation. An ancillary benefit is that undercover operations that use an operational plan tend to be more productive. Operations that have an objective and a structured plan tend to go better. Undercover officers who stick to a plan are seen by the crooks as more in control and more often get their way.

Additionally, before an undercover operation is undertaken, make sure that the chain of control is clearly defined. There should be no mistaking who is responsible for making decisions and where the ultimate authority lies. An undercover operation should have a street supervisor, often referred to as the case agent. He or she is responsible for ongoing decisions about the case: directing surveillance, communicating with the undercover officers, authorizing changes to the plan and ensuring that the operation safely proceeds toward its objective. The undercover officer should not be the street supervisor because it is too difficult for him or her to communicate with the others. They cannot see the whole picture as well as someone outside the undercover role. Every undercover operation should also have a supervisor who is in the office. This supervisor can monitor the operation, communicate with the street supervisor, make decisions not delegated to the street supervisor and have access to all types of communication in case of an emergency.

The Operation Itself -- Is it Safe?

Now all the preparations have been made for a safe undercover operation. The operation is deemed necessary. The right people are selected. The planning is complete. Next is the operation itself. How can it be executed as safely as possible?

Surveillance is key to a safe undercover operation. Surveillance should be started well before the anticipated meeting time. Too often surveillance is established only moments before the meeting time. Or, worse yet, the undercover meeting actually starts while the surveillance units are en route. It takes time for surveillance officers to look around, familiarize themselves with the locale, find a place to set up and communicate their location and field of vision to other units. No undercover meeting should begin until all the surveillance units are settled in place and have checked in with the street supervisor. If the undercover officers come into danger before their protective surveillance units are in place, they are all alone and cannot be helped. The surveillance units should be constantly aware of any changes in the vicinity that might threaten the safety of the officers, for example, counter-surveillance or blocking action by other vehicles. If the addresses of the suspects are known, surveillance units should go there to learn of their activities before the planned meeting. They may sight additional suspects who could be a threat to the undercover officers.

Undercover operations do not always succeed. Sometimes crooks are unable to obtain the drugs or convince their source of supply to follow the agreed upon plan. Other times the crooks never intend to supply the contraband, but are looking for the chance to rip off the undercover officers.

An operation that is planned to last a certain amount of time, even with allowances for normal delays, may have to be terminated for lasting too long. When negotiations stretch on and on it might be because the crooks are trying to maneuver the undercover officers into a situation where the officer can be harmed. The criminals may attempt to steal money or believe their accomplish to be police officers.

The street supervisor has the responsibility to determine the maximum amount of time for an undercover operation. He or she must realize negotiations that run too long rarely end in success. The operational plan should contain a time frame within which the negotiations will be concluded. Safe operations follow those time constraints.

Radio discipline is another facet of a safe undercover operation. The principle radio user during an undercover operation should be the street supervisor. He or she has the responsibility for communicating with the undercover officer, assigning surveillance duties, talking with the office supervisor and monitoring any discreet transmitting devices. Other officers on the operation must be instructed to keep their radio traffic to an absolute minimum. Unnecessary radio traffic that covers up critical communications between the supervisor and others can be dangerous. If something goes wrong during an undercover operation, the response time by cover officers is critical. Time lost waiting for the radio frequency to clear can be deadly. We all like to know what is going on, but you must avoid idle inquiries on the radio.

Discreet transmitting devices are essential in today's undercover operations. Not only are they excellent safety tools for the undercover officer, but they provide the best possible evidence for court. The array of electronic devices available to assist undercover operations including audio, video, infrared, microwave and miniaturization; dazzle those of us who years ago had little or nothing available. I will not describe the equipment, technique or usage choices available. Police managers, however, should make themselves aware of the electronic equipment and ensure it is used in undercover operations when appropriate. Counter-surveillance devices used by those with criminal intent pose a significant challenge to an operational plan. It is essential to know whether the subjects are using this type of equipment! You should know this equipment is available to crooks.

When an undercover narcotics officer is injured or killed while on the job it is predominantly caused by lack of proper flash roll management. Numerous articles and papers have been done on this topic due to its importance in undercover officer safety. In any undercover operation where the officer poses as someone who has the money to buy contraband, the intent of the trafficker is to obtain that money. If he can acquire it through negotiations, fine. However, if the trafficker believes he can obtain the money by ripping it off, the undercover officer is at tremendous risk. It does not matter what the undercover officers do with the flash roll. What matters is what the crook perceives is being done with the money.

Undercover officers should realize the most dangerous time during an undercover scenario is when both the contraband and the flash roll are present. It is at this time when the crooks are the most alert and aggressive. You can maximize undercover safety when using a flash roll by applying a number of techniques:

  • Never let the suspect know, or think he knows, the location of the flash roll. An undercover officer who has $10,000 hidden on his or her person, but has convinced the trafficker that the money is elsewhere, is probably as safe as if he had no money at all. If a suspect is shown the flash roll, tell him that the money is being moved the moment the meeting is over. If the suspect even thinks he knows where the money is located, he may try to rip it off.
  • Flash the money at a time and location of your choosing, not at a time and place directed by the suspects. A "surprise flash" is often used to display money while limiting the undercover officer's exposure to danger. With this technique the money is shown to a suspect when he is not expecting it such as at a meeting set up for other purposes. If the suspect has any inclination to steal the flash roll, any advance notice of its appearance will provide him with the opportunity to devise a plan to steal it.
  • Use commonly accepted safe flashing techniques. Place the money in a vehicle driven by another undercover officer. They will then leave the scene immediately after the flash. Take the suspect to the location of the flash then drive him back to another location to resume negotiations. Flash the money in a bank safety deposit box -- a technique good for high security.
  • Never move to a second location with the flash roll -- no matter what the enticement offered by the suspect. Do not flash the money more than once in the same investigation unless it is unavoidable. Do not flash the money the same way the second time especially since it will no longer be a surprise. It also does no good to surprise flash a flunky and then be required to flash the same money to the real crook.

The supervisor plays a key role in flash roll safety. Undercover officers sometimes fail to sense danger because they are intent on the successful completion of the deal. The supervisor should be ready to use any extraordinary methods to protect the safety of the undercover officer.

What are the Keys to Undercover Safety?

You can enhance the safety of your undercover officers by avoiding mistakes found in operations that ended in death or injury to an undercover officer. Apply these fundamentals when beginning an undercover operation:

  • Plan the operation carefully, including the selection and training of the officers. Make sure that all necessary preparations are completed. Always select a volunteer who has received training in undercover operations.
  • Always use an operational plan. The lack of an operational plan, or one poorly thought out, can lead directly to trouble. Everyone involved in the operation must know what is expected of them and what to expect of others. When problems occur or if tragedy is narrowly averted, the first question is, "Was there an operational plan?" Management must insist on an operational plan for every undercover operation.
  • Practice correct flash roll management. Mismanagement of the flash roll is a direct invitation to tragedy. Crooks will attempt to rip off the money if given the opportunity. Even allowing them to think they know where the flash roll is can result in problems.
  • Establish good communication procedures. Poor communication with the undercover officer leaves the supervisor without any means to assess the ongoing situation as it relates to danger. Always assign an undercover control officer as a point of daily contact to monitor the well-being of the undercover officer.
  • With all the technology available today, the undercover officer should be equipped with a means to send and receive communications. Beepers, cellular phones and discreet transmitters can readily accomplish this goal. An officer needs the ability to receive word from his or her supervisor if a dangerous outside situation has developed or to transmit the call for assistance if faced with danger inside.
  • Remove the undercover officer from the arrest scene. One of the most dangerous actions attempted is the arrest of the suspects by the undercover officer. At this time in an operation the suspect believes the undercover officer's cover. Any action taken by the officer may be perceived as drug violence and the suspect may respond with fatal violence. Or, the suspect may become enraged when he realizes he has been tricked. Either scenario is dangerous. For these reasons, the undercover officer should be removed from the scene before arrests are undertaken.

All of us can work safer. Attention to detail, including the points discussed in this article, will help us make our undercover officers safer as they do their job.

The National Executive Institute Associates Leadership Bulletin editor is Edward J. Tully. He served with the FBI as a Special Agent from 1962 to 1993. He is presently the Executive Director of the National Executive Institute Associates and the Major City Chiefs. You can reach him via e-mail at or by writing to 308 Altoona Drive, Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401