The officer rolled up his sleeves. Muscles built from weight training had atrophied. His tan from running along the beach had also vanished, along with other traces of his former life. Before embarking on his undercover assignment, his way of getting a buzz was having a few beers. So when he made his first buys, he had had to simulate the look and behavior of a junkie. Now the needle tracks on his arms were real. His supervisor ignored his pleas for help and said the department had invested too much money in the operation for him to quit. He praised the officer’s productivity and sent him back out onto the streets. The job was more important than the undercover officer’s emotional, mental, and physical health.
Such an attitude from a supervisor is sure to have one major result: officer burnout. And even if an undercover officer has a supportive supervisor, he or she is at higher risk of burnout than officers who work in overt roles. Undercover officers, particularly those in deep cover roles, are immersed in deception. Most of their human contact may be with criminals. They must always be “on.” They may lose touch with family, friends, and reality. All of these factors put them at risk of developing chronic ailments or depression.
But if you are considering an undercover assignment, you should know that there are ways to improve your odds of coming home healthy and happy when the job is done.
Accepting an Assignment
Select roles that allow you to keep aspects of your true personality traits and background while on the job. A role too far from what you know will increase your stress level.
A good way to stay connected with your real life and maintain a strong sense of your own identity is to incorporate old habits into your new routine. If you work out regularly, find a gym where you can continue to exercise. This will provide continuity with your old life and enable you to blow off steam.
Even if a role is one you would be comfortable assuming, you should still question your motives for seeking it out. For example, are you running away from a troubled aspect of your personal or work life? Embarking on an undercover role when your life is in flux will only make existing problems worse.
You should also be aware of personal vulnerabilities, such as whether you have an addictive personality or have a tendency to lean on crutches such as alcohol when under stress. Undercover, you will be under stress and you will have plenty of opportunities to drink to excess and/or use illegal drugs.
Your Support Network
Avoid participating in undercover operations where backstopping (information that supports your cover) is inadequate or where you will not have necessary administrative and operational support. Also, working with a partner you can trust will provide you with backup and an ally.
It’s really a plus if you have a partner of the opposite sex who can pretend to be your romantic interest. This will discourage suspects and their associates from making sexual advances.
Stay in Touch
Although you are living another life when you are undercover, it’s important to maintain your relationships. Doing so will keep you grounded in your own life and prevent you from losing yourself in the job.
Meetings, phone conversations, and e-mail correspondence with law enforcement colleagues provide continuity with your real life, remind you of who you are, and reinforce alliances.
But don’t expect all of your colleagues to understand the stress that you are coping with while undercover. Some officers may envy your undercover lifestyle. They may resent that you appear free from management’s watchful eye and seem to be having a non-stop party while they are stuck at the stationhouse, on patrol, or working in another traditional investigative role.
The best way to deal with this is to stay close with your real friends in your agency. Having allies to defuse backbiting can reduce the risk that someone will attempt to sabotage your career or personal relationships.
You also want to stay in touch with your family while living another life. You may not be free to discuss the investigation or your undercover role, but you must let your family and your significant other know that they are part of your life. They need to know you are still committed to them. Communication can also mitigate your family’s fears for your safety and their own safety.
When you and your loved ones are together, engage in leisure activities you enjoy. Do not treat the home as just a hotel, restaurant, laundry, and place to complete your errands. If you act like your job is your spouse, you are more likely to lose your real spouse.
Sometimes undercover assignments require you and your family to move. When this is the case, your family is cut off from friends, neighbors, and co-workers. This is particularly true if they are living under false identities, which may make them feel dishonest in attempting to build new friendships.
Their complaints about being isolated may grate on your nerves, but be compassionate. Help them find a social outlet. If their sense of isolation is less acute, they will feel less resentment and there will be less pressure on you.
Which brings me to the kids. It doesn’t take much for them to feel neglected. The school play may seem unimportant compared to your 10-kilo heroin bust but, to your kid, that play may be the most important thing that has happened in the last year. Stay in their lives and let them know that you care.
Working with informants can be a source of great stress even on overt investigations. When you’re undercover, informants can be an even bigger pain.
Your informant may have more experience in the criminal world you are infiltrating, but do not let your informant run the investigation. Informants have self-serving motivations and should not necessarily be trusted. Informants have used undercover investigations to eliminate competition, to further their own illegal activities, and have betrayed undercover officers.
Even an informant who is loyal can become a liability. He may be overzealous and put his safety or your safety at risk. He may gather evidence in a manner that would compromise its use in a prosecution. Utilize informants for introductions and show appreciation for their contributions, but ease them out of an investigation once their participation is no longer vital.
Set guidelines for yourself before you embark on your undercover role and stick to those guidelines. If your department lacks adequate guidelines, look at guidelines from other agencies as a reference on how you should comport yourself.
Supervisors can make unreasonable demands. Should that happen, call on support from your control/contact officer, allies in management, and fellow officers. You may even need to seek legal counsel.
Whatever you do, don’t let a supervisor convince you to tough it out if you believe your health, safety, or your family’s health or safety is compromised. Use common sense and good judgment. Go with your gut. If the pressure gets too intense, get out before it is too late.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to safeguard your mental health while on an undercover assignment is to have a road map for returning to your real life.
At the outset of every undercover operation, set up plans for leaving the operation temporarily or permanently. For instance, tell suspects you have a relative who is ill. If you need time between meets to recoup your energy, see family, or deal with other issues, you can then tell suspects that your “relative” has been hospitalized or has died.
Use this to take advantage of breaks in the investigation to give yourself a break. When you have time off, distance yourself from the operation. Small changes such as reverting back to an old hairstyle or clothing can remind you of who you really are.
And know when to quit. Even the most gifted undercover officer eventually needs a permanent break from undercover assignments. Still, it can be hard going back to your pre-undercover assignment. If this happens to you, consider retraining. It can smooth the transition back to traditional investigative work.
Even with retraining you may not effectively adapt when transferred back to traditional investigative work. This may be a sign that you should spend the rest of your career teaching your skills to others.
A post in a training unit or academy enables you to pass on your knowledge. And the accolades you will receive from trainees will also reinforce your valuable contributions to the department.
Outside of training there are other career options that you may want to consider after coming in from an undercover assignment. If you don’t want to or can’t go back to your old job, you might excel as an undercover coordinator, informant coordinator, or member of a surveillance squad or other specialized task force.
Alicia M. Hilton is a visiting professor of law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Prior to becoming an attorney, she was an FBI Special Agent who worked undercover in two long-term criminal cases, posing as a drug dealer with ties to organized crime.