Q & A With A Real Undercover Operative– Part III

If you missed part I or II of this post you can find them here and here. For those of you just joining us please read the disclaimer on part I about no reblogging unless reverting readers to the original content. Thank you.

Note: when he says ‘above’ he’s referring to the previous posts. You can refresh your memory by clicking the above links.

Back to the interview…

I’m very curious about what undercover work does to one’s psyche. I would think spending long stretches with criminals would begin to wear, or at least weigh heavily, on someone’s true self. After all, you became a cop for a reason, to uphold the law, protect and serve. So, how do you deal with the repercussions of undercover work? Is there a period of counseling afterwards, or do you just bite the bullet, so to speak? 

I think this one is answered above for the most part…  Most police policies require a UC Operator to visit the shrink after a major operation.  We called it ‘going to get your head read.’

One thing I will say, is that when you get out and begin police work in another police unit, it may haunt you.  I have heard many off the cuff remarks from other police members.  Things like, “Because you’re a UC I can never tell if your telling the truth.” Or, “You’re mind fucking us because you’re a trained UC.”  So, in policing circles you carry the stigma of being a UC with you.  Most people look up to you because of your experience in UC work, but lots think they need to be leery of your ability to persuade and manipulate.  Frankly, they are right…  UC work changes you.  You learn how to manipulate.

Part of the training done in UC work involved dropping a candidate (in a UC course) off in another city.  They would leave you with no money, tell you that you cannot call for help or assistance, nor can you tell anyone you are a cop (including other police officers).  Then, they would say, “See you in 24 hours.” You may be with a few other candidates on the course and you would look for ways to raise money for food and a motel room.

This involved manipulating people– begging for money, coming up with schemes to get money, etc.  The goal was to get enough money for pizza and beer and get a motel room.  However, if you did too well (obtained too much money), you would find yourself arrested (for no reason) and thrown in jail.  At no time could you break your cover (give your real name or that you’re a cop), or you would be kicked off the course.  This type of training, when you are forced to perform or go without the necessities can obviously change a person.

I understand that undercover operatives aren’t allowed to break the law. So, how do you get around that? What measures do you take to ensure you’re not crossing the line? Again, I bet it’s difficult. After all, your life is on the line. 

As mentioned above, the actions of the police are usually on trial– not the accused.  So, we are mindful of all of our actions at all times.  And, much of what the target ‘thinks happened’ isn’t the case– it’s all in their perception.  For instance, you may have the target witness what he thinks is a shooting.  But in reality the UC shoots another UC with blanks. This can be problematic, and has to be controlled to ensure the target doesn’t join in with his .38 he has in his jacket. Scenarios like this are done after careful planning and consideration for the safety of the public and UCs.

There is allowance in the criminal code that lets the police break the law, but only minor offences that do not result in injury.  Again, the actions must be proportionate to the crime being investigated.  So, for example, we can have a minor (without causing injury) car accident, fender bender, with a target to initiate contact.  This is generally a file starting scenario.  But, you would be highly scrutinized in the courts for taking this action on a theft or minor criminal offence.  It would have to be a serious offence– i.e. homicide.  To use these types of tactics, that allow for breaking the law, it has to be approved by a designated official.  And that person is authorized by the courts to make that type of approval.

Years ago, when I owned and operated a hair salon, I had an undercover DEA agent who used to have me color and cut his hair according to what sting he was running at the time. Sometimes he needed a full beard, other times a goatee, mustache, or Fu Manchu. Sometimes he’d need blond highlights to blend with the beach crowd, other times I’d have to bring him back to brunette. I was honored to be the one to help him get into ‘disguise’. And it was a lot of fun knowing I did my part. Did you have a go-to girl/guy that helped with your undercover looks, or did you always look the same? 

I changed my look all the time.  Again, it was based on the likability from the target.  And, sometimes the role.  For instance, I have played the role of a photographer scouting movie shoot locations; a skin head; a biker; a crack addict; an executive; a business owner, and the list goes on.  However, I never ever disclosed to anyone outside of my UC Team that I was undercover.  My neighbours did not know I was a cop.  My friends knew I was an Undercover cop, but I never disclosed a role or anything about what I was doing.  I would usually say that I just do boring surveillance work.  Not even my wife would know the file details or even where I was at times.

But, being a DEA Agent and working a drug file is (for the most part, but not always) less risky than a long term file with a killer.  Your comment brings up another point.  Lots of new UC Operators brag…  This can be problematic.  They mostly do it to get laid frankly, but if the bosses found out they would be disciplined and possibly kicked out of the team.

Ha! Oh, getting laid was definitely his motivation. I wasn’t that naive to presume otherwise. Please continue.

Being a UC is being the role of an unsung hero.  Frankly, even after the takedown you receive little in the way of praise, given that you need to keep a low profile.  Also, keeping a low profile means staying out of social media.  Almost all UCs have nothing you can find online, or they shouldn’t.  A bad guy will look.  And if he finds the picture of you from 1996 arresting a robber in uniform you could be next on his hit list.  Training in the way of personal safety for UCs is something that needs to be scrutinized and looked at from the police agency perspective.  But, in my opinion, the department just doesn’t want to pay the money or put the resources into this.

I bet in this digital age you’d need an entire background story with documentation and records that go back years. How do you remember all of that information? Did you always have the same background and name, or did you keep switching it up? 

My identity and cover story was somewhat similar with every file.  The role I played was what changed, depending on the target.  I would usually use information that was somewhat similar to my own life, to make it easier to remember.  But, different enough as to not leave slivers of information that would lead back to my old life.  For instance, I would say I have one sister (which I do), but I would give a different name and age, etc.  I would build on the information until I could talk for hours about my cover story (fictitious life).  In terms of credibility with your cover story I would have identification (different name, age, etc) to back up my story.  I would also have a credit history, job history, etc…  These could all be checked and verified by the target.

Can you walk us through a typical arrest once the suspect confesses? I’m not looking for specifics here, just the general idea that gets us from the confession to the bad guy in cuffs. For instance, you probably didn’t make the collar, right? I would think uniformed officers would swarm in and bust the criminal once you gave the signal. Am I right? If so, what did that look like? Were you arrested, too, to make it look good? 

Yes, to all the above.  Generally on homicide files the arrest happens a few days after the confession.  This allows time for the investigative team to put together an initial arrest/disclosure package for the crown prosecutor.  And, at times after the arrest the target is sometimes not told that he was arrested as a result of an undercover operation.  For instance, I got a confession from a killer who, after he was arrested, got a message to his girlfriend to pass to me.  That message was to kill a woman who could refute his alibi.  So, at that point we had another file of conspiracy to commit murder– and another charge to ensure that the bad guy got potentially more jail time.  Sometimes the UC will be involved in the post-arrest interrogation to prompt a full statement where the target confesses again, while under arrest, for the crime.

Generally speaking, the act of arresting the target is based on the likelihood they will be armed, the chance that they will flee, the seriousness of the crime, and any risks to the public that may exist upon executing the arrest.  For instance, if the target is known to possess a gun, a swat team would be deployed to affect the arrest.  In all cases like this, the location of the target would be identified and containment would be in place.

This means that officers (sometimes in plain clothes as to not alert the target) would be in strategic locations surrounding the target.  This would be in the event the target fled with a gun or weapon– the last thing the police want is a hostage situation.  Then, the entry team in full tactical gear (body armour and machine guns) would quickly and quietly enter the location by battering ram.  They then may deploy a ‘flash bang’ to disorient the target, so they can enter and restrain the target while he is disoriented– the tactic of surprise/tactical advantage.

I have been arrested on several occasions, and then throw into cells with the target.  This certainly stims conversation.  In most cases as a UC you just sit back and let the target talk about why they think they have been thrown in jail– confession without the UC saying a word.  I have spent lots of time in jails, holding cells, etc…

In almost all cases mitigating risk to the public is paramount.  So, we would never want to arrest in a crowded public area if at all possible.

Everything is taped, I assume. How do you ensure the cameras aren’t spotted? You can’t possibly being wearing a wire, I wouldn’t think, so there must be tiny cameras in existence. Can you elaborate on that? 

This is a bit of a sensitive question.  I have had wires on me, but it is dependant on the target.  If they are ‘hinky’ and likely to check the Operator a for a wire it may not be ‘on the person.’  More likely hidden in a vehicle or a room.  Wires are concealed in all types of locations.  The devices used are all over the map from pens to cell phones to laptops and the list goes on.  Some cameras are so small that they can be hidden to look like a hole on a pepper shaker.  I have seen small holes in lamps that conceal a camera to a small camera in a wall plug.  The sky is the limit on this one.

In several policing departments they have units like a Security Engineering Section.  This team is the one that you would use to bypass electronic door readers (like in buildings or hotel room, without leaving a record of being there), to building video cameras out of a calculator, lamp, light switch, etc.  The unit that installs this type of equipment are the techie geek types (who are police officers), but they are a different section than SES.

Smart criminals will go to extremes in checking for wires/transmittable signals.  There are lots of devices on the market that are readily available to legally buy.  They can discover wires, tracking devices, etc.  You need to know your target, and predict or know if they will be this hinky…

Thank you so much for joining us, and for this candid look into the life of an undercover operative.
A few of you wrote in and asked questions. Here’s what you asked…

Do you know of any instances of a Mr. Big scheme exonerating the suspect?

He answered, yes, to this question, but didn’t elaborate. I’m assuming he couldn’t because of the sensitive nature of discussing innocent parties.

What aspects of a killer’s personality have you found almost charming or endearing? I like to see protagonists from two sides, one almost innocuous while the other, a malevolent creature.

He answered this one in the interview. Here’s what he said: Something I would add is that with all the killers I have spend time with, all have something (even if it’s very small) about them that is likable.

For him to give a more precise answer would mean identifying a specific person– something he is not able to do.

Now,  as a special bonus, I will take a few questions from you! Anyone curious about something you’ve heard over the last few days? Leave it in the comment section and I’ll see if I can get ‘Mr. Big’ to answer.
As a side note: He’s a super nice, extremely intelligent and kind man, who has worked his tail off so we can feel safe. If nothing else, he deserves our appreciation and support. So why not take a moment to show him some love in the comments.  Thank you, all!

Next up for Murder Blog– 50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters, how to get the .pdf and what it’s all about. (UPDATE: click title to read post)

14 Comments

  1. Pingback: Power Of StumbleUpon & How-to Add Sharing Button To WordPress.com | Crime Fiction Writer Sue Coletta

  2. Thanks for putting your butt on the line. I feel safer knowing it.

    And, Sue, this interview was excellent. I’m so much wiser for it. Looking forward to your next. 🙂

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

  3. Thank you so much for this interview. Lots and lots of fascinating information! 🙂

    One question I had: At one point he mentions the “crown prosecutor.” I must have missed which country he’s in. Can he tell us? (Country only; he doesn’t have to get more specific than that)

    Thank you!!!

    • Very perceptive, Dana! I wondered if anyone would pick up on that. Your question: Umm… I don’t know how to answer that without jeopardizing him. I’ll get back to you…

  4. Thanks, Mr. Big and Sue! Terrific questions and fascinating answers. I really enjoyed the interview.

  5. This was an excellent interview, Sue. I can tell from my personal background that Mr. Big was being absolutely candid. This was exceptionally generous for him to share his experiences. Great job!

  6. This was one of the best blog series I’ve ever read. I don’t even write this kind of story, but it was still interesting, and I may find a nugget for my own works.

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