ACPO’s (Association of Chief Police Officers) head of crime, Merseyside Chief Constable Jon Murphy, has said that undercover Officers play a critical role gathering evidence and intelligence to protect communities from harm. He also described undercover work as being one of the most challenging areas of operational policing. The question is what is it like to be an undercover Officer?
When it comes to undercover work there are a lot of misconceptions and confusion, much of which is the result of films and TV shows.
First and foremost is the belief that any Police Officer wearing plain clothes and who is not wearing a suit is working undercover. Police Officers working in specialist investigatory roles tend to wear more casual clothes such as jeans and t-shirts. There are a variety of reasons for this. One of the main ones is that they may be called to carry out surveillance or observations on a person or property at short notice and it is not practical for them to repeatedly change in and out of uniform.
Officers working undercover wear clothes to suit the role they are portraying. An Officer posing as a heroin user would stand out a mile if they were wearing a suit. Similarly, an Officer attempting to buy ten stolen iPads would not get very far dressed in a dirty old tracksuit that had not seen the inside of a washing machine for some time.
The next popular misconception is that any Officer can work undercover at the drop of a hat and work right next door to the Police Station where they are based. The first stage in becoming an undercover Officer is the assessment. The assessment comprises a number of interviews and role playing exercises to see how the Officer reacts to various circumstances. Everyone who is successful at the assessment progresses onto the initial training course.
The training course
For obvious reasons, the details of undercover courses are shrouded in secrecy. They are run by serving and ex-undercover Officers to an agreed national standard and are widely acknowledged as being the most difficult course any Police Officer can undergo.
The candidates on the course are put through a series of increasingly challenging situations. To ensure accuracy, the basis of each situation is a repetition of one that has happened in real life. Although this has the benefit of allowing the assessors to see how the candidates handle real life situations, the Officers running the course allow each situation to unfold naturally and react to the candidate’s actions.
Unfortunately for the candidates, the courses are run under “big boy’s rules” which means that there are no “safe words” to stop the exercise and on occasions, candidates have been known to suffer injuries after being assaulted or injured during the exercise. The people running the course act just like a criminal would in real life and if that includes resorting to physical violence then so be it. If the candidate cannot handle it in a training situation they will not be able to handle it in the real world.
In amongst the practical exercises, there are lengthy lessons on the legal aspects of being an undercover Officer. Although they work undercover, the Officers are still subject to the exact same laws as when they are working in uniform although undercover Officers have additional laws to work with such as acting as an agent provocateur which is something that regular officers do not have to even think about.
Most of the law in England and Wales falls into one of two categories: Statute law and common law. Statute law is law which has been compiled and passed by Parliament and is laid out for Judges to rule on. Common law has been handed down from the dawn of time and can come to exist through convention or judicial precedent. Examples of convention are the offences of murder and breach of the peace. The work of undercover officers is often affected by judicial precedent. This can often define what a word means and can only be over-ruled by a higher court. The main concern for undercover Officers are the rules covering entrapment and acting as an agent provocateur.
In short, they can act as criminals but cannot encourage the people are interacting with to carry out tasks they would not normally carry out themselves. The easiest way to explain it is to use an example of an undercover Officer trying to buy drugs.
The Officer cannot ask someone who supplies cannabis to supply heroin as this was not a drug they normally supply. To further confuse matters, the Officer has to ensure that they use the correct wording. Asking someone if they “have any heroin” is fine but asking if they “can get any” would mean that the Officer would be acting as an agent provocateur and encouraging the dealer to commit the offence of obtaining heroin to supply it to the Officer.
By Officer Z
See Part II here