Undercover Agents

Undercover agents must be able to adapt quickly to new situations and environments. They must also demonstrate a high degree of discretion and confidentiality in their work.


Before the FBI conducts a Group II undercover operation, a federal prosecutor must provide a letter stating that he or she has reviewed the proposal in sensitive circumstances reasonably expected to occur, agrees with its legality and will prosecute any meritorious case.

Narcotics Dealers

Dealers operate within two broad categories: public and private networks. Private networks involve illegal transactions among buyers and sellers in private settings (homes, apartments, rooms), avoiding the risk of being known to and penetrated by police/law enforcement. Public networks involve illegal transactions among dealers and buyers in public settings (streets, parks, clubs).

A well-organized dealer can maximize sales while minimizing exposure to law enforcement. This requires a high level of trust and loyalty among the members of a drug dealing team. The dealer’s personal relationship with a particular buyer or users is usually of secondary importance, especially when the drug seller interacts with several types of customers in a day.

In many cases, drug buyers and sellers are able to connect online, text or use the phone to communicate about purchases and meeting locations. Some sellers will even arrange home delivery of heroin or crack cocaine to specific users. Elizabeth Thompson, a recovering heroin user who grew dependent on the drug while attending law school in Philadelphia, described the men who delivered her doses of the drug through the front door of her apartment building as punctual and courteous.

Some of the smallest street-level sellers and lower-level distributors rely heavily on go-between associates to perform a wide variety of functions and assume risks that the dealer would rather avoid. Ethnographers have found that finding a trusted go-between can be key to approaching a drug dealer for ethnographic purposes.

Police Officers

A number of law enforcement officers work undercover to uncover organized crime, narcotics trafficking or other criminal activities. While this type of policing can be exciting and satisfying, it can also be dangerous. Undercover cops are often the last to know their cover is blown, and they must be able to quickly revert back to uniform and report any incidents that threaten their safety.

It’s not always easy to spot an undercover police officer, but they might be wearing a uniform or plainclothes that matches the local police department. They may drive an unmarked vehicle with municipal plates, dark tinting and multiple radio antennas clustered together. They may have a badge, slingshot, handcuffs or other law-enforcement equipment hidden in their clothing. They might have short, neat haircuts and cargo pants or shorts. They might try to earn trust and pump people for information.

Undercover sleuths are allowed to drink up to two drinks in order to maintain their cover, but they should avoid any alcoholic beverages that might affect their ability to remain hidden. It’s also important for undercover cops to remove any tattoos that might give them away. In one case, a law-enforcement officer working undercover as a patient at a medical facility received prescriptions for narcotics after a doctor reviewed an x-ray she brought in that showed her spine had been injured in an auto accident.

Corporate Investigators

Corporate investigators are private actors employed by organizations to look into internal norm violations by staff, subsidiaries or subcontractors. Since they have extensive access to information and expertise, the vast majority of their operations stay within the private legal sphere and do not enter the criminal justice system (Meerts, 2016).

These investigations often involve taking up false identities, so that an undercover officer can gain entry into organized crime syndicates and gather evidence about their activities. The operatives are able to speak openly to suspects and gather intelligence much faster than a uniformed police officer, and confessions made to undercover agents are as valid as those made to police officers.

The movies and our imaginations tend to portray undercover operations as law enforcement officers being forced to take drugs or otherwise break the law to prove themselves, but in reality it is quite the opposite. The operatives are given full permission and even encouraged to reinvent themselves as much as possible, and they are thoroughly vetted and regularly assessed to make sure they can handle the intense demands of working covertly.

This substantial room for private investigators to operate independently of the criminal justice system means that theoretical concepts such as junior partnerships, privatization and responsibilization do not adequately capture the nature of public-private relations in this sphere. There appears to be a blurring, rather than a bifurcation, of the public and private sectors, and a significant shift in relationships between the state and the business world.

Security Guards

Security guards, or private security officers, may be armed depending on contracts agreed upon with clients and rely on their ability to deter criminal activity by simply demonstrating their presence at client locations. They also must be well-versed in surveillance tactics and equipment. Role-playing scenarios in a controlled environment can help these professionals hone their communication skills and problem-solving techniques, making them more capable of managing and defusing difficult situations.

These workers are often used for high-profile individuals to protect their assets and safety. This may include providing a bodyguard who is highly trained and armed. In addition, these agents are sometimes hired to patrol sensitive areas of a company, such as a warehouse or construction site.

In some instances, an undercover agent is contracted to act as law enforcement until local police are available at a given situation. For example, an armed security guard who is deployed on ships in an area of piracy risk may be tasked with responding to a given incident until public authorities arrive.

Regardless of the duties they perform, undercover operatives should be aware that their work could cause them to lose credibility or trust within their clientele. They must be mindful of their appearance and avoid wearing uniforms or badges that are too similar to those worn by police officers. Furthermore, if they are working undercover in a role that involves providing suspects with opportunities to commit crimes they wouldn’t otherwise commit through agent provocateur or entrapment, such activities are subject to review and approval procedures by the appropriate authorities.