Practical & Ethical Issues Facing Undercover Police Officers

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Ethical conflicts are an inevitable part of undercover work. Officers are often required to build friendships and relationships with suspects whom they will eventually betray in the courtroom. The constant need to shift from a criminal persona to the officer's true identity can also rupture or strain family relationships. Left on their own for extended periods, officers may find themselves more willing to cut ethical corners -- particularly if they see improved job prospects ahead.

Betrayed Relationships

  • For undercover officers, building cases means forming close relationships to suspects they will eventually betray. Former federal agent Billy Queen grappled with these realities during a two-year investigation of the Mongols motorcycle gang, "The Washington Post" reported in October 2005. Queen had no illusions about the Mongols' penchant for violence, though he liked many of them personally. The stress of juggling these conflicting emotions eventually forced Queen to retire from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the newspaper stated.

Corruption Risks

  • One of the oldest undercover conflicts is having to impersonate criminals without crossing the line. Philippine national police chief Jesus Verzosa voiced this rationale in banning the use of illegal substances during drug investigations, the ABS-CBN network reported in February 2009. The chief's order followed reports that 221 of 25,134 police officers had failed drug tests. A similar scandal rocked New York's South Brooklyn precinct, where four officers were arrested and six more suspended for rewarding informants with drugs, the "New York Times" stated in January 2008.

Identity Issues

  • Isolated from family and friends, undercover officers struggle to balance their real and assumed identities. Queen's work against the Mongols forced the relocation of his ex-wife and two sons, who had no idea what was happening, the "Washington Post" noted. British officers have also been accused of trading sex for information. A court cited these concerns in overturning Colin Stagg's murder conviction, "The Guardian" reported in January 2011. The ruling followed reports that an undercover policewoman initiated a relationship with Stagg to gain a confession.

Lost Integrity

  • Despite its risks and stresses, undercover work remains an attractive proposition for detectives and police officers seeking a long-term career. Going undercover in New York City can ensure a detective promotion in 18 months, instead of three to five years, the "New York Times" states. Such processes may also breed a corner-cutting mentality that can harm an agency's reputation. In 2003, for example, 30 narcotics officers were transferred out of Brooklyn South for allegedly bilking $30,000 in overtime from the department, the "New York Times" reported.

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