It’s not surprising that undercover work is frequently misunderstood, often romanticized, usually unappreciated, and occasionally maligned. Blame Hollywood. People watch TV shows like Miami Vice or Graceland, or movies like The Departed, Fast and Furious, Training Day, or Donnie Brasco and figure that’s what undercover looks like. Don’t get me wrong, I think Donnie Brasco and especially The Departed are great films and very compelling. This’ll probably come as a shock, but Hollywood… doesn’t always get it right about undercover agents. Let’s bust some myths and misconceptions.
1. Not all cops not wearing a uniform are "undercover."
The first and the biggest is that all cops not wearing a uniform are “undercover.” They’re not. In fact, a tiny fraction of law enforcement officers are truly operating undercover. Most of the ones not wearing a uniform, or in the correct parlance, “plainclothes,” are doing investigative work as detectives or special agents. They’re not pretending to be something they’re not, like a criminal or a drug dealer, don’t have a false identity, don’t stop doing the things other LEOs do. I spent thirty-five years in plainclothes, only worked UC for about twenty of those, and they were all part-time, short-term assignments.
“Undercover” means just what it says. You’re operating under the cover or in the guise of someone else. Someone who’s not a cop. I had an undercover driver’s license, social security number, and a wallet full of other ID that I could produce for anybody who wanted to know whether John Matthews (my UC name for the whole period) was real or not. Nobody ever cared enough to card me, but I had that stuff as part of my cover if anyone ever did.
2. An undercover (UC) agent is allowed to maintain their cover, even if that means lying about it.
A second myth is that undercover assignments are all like the one in Donnie Brasco, where the FBI UC goes deep into his role and infiltrates the Mafia or some other criminal organization in an investigation that can last months or even years. The Departed is a great example, with Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio) playing an ex-cop who goes under to investigate Jack Nicholson’s crime group. Billy lives in that role, lives his cover, which in his case was his real identity, sticks to it even through a pretty graphic torture session. Which brings us to a huge misconception about undercover, the urban myth that if you ask an undercover if he’s a cop, he has to tell the truth or it’s entrapment, a legal defense to the crime. Um, no. No, the UC is allowed to maintain his cover, even if that means lying about it. I did a deal one night for an ounce of PCP and the crook kept a .38 revolver pointed at my face the whole time we were talking. (Which, to be truthful, wasn’t very long, as I was suddenly rather anxious to get to another urgent appointment elsewhere.) He didn’t ask, but if he had, I’d have been perfectly fine denying I was a cop.
And that brings us to lying generally. It may come as a surprise that I actually tried to lie as little as possible. My undercover identity, personal history, and background was always as close to the real me as I could make it. That made remembering the details much easier, and I just had to leave out a couple of important points. Mainly the fact that I was an undercover agent and not the other party’s new best buddy. Making stuff up and winging it past your new acquaintance is a recipe for trouble. I never wanted to hear, “I thought you said you_______...” Telling someone you just got out of the state pen, for example, is a bad plan on a number of levels, the main one being you’re probably dealing with people who really did just get out of the state pen or who know people intimately who did. “Yeah? Which tier were you on?” “Did you know so-and-so?” and an endless number of similar, very uncomfortable questions then threaten to shoot your cover (and possibly you) into little shreds. So, I avoided those kinds of lies.
3. Today, undercover work is rare and much safer than before.
Finally, the truth about undercover today, which Hollywood definitely does not and never will show. Times have changed. When I worked UC, things were much less structured, less regulated, and in certain cases like narcotics, more common. It was also far more dangerous. The brass at most law enforcement agencies have figured this out (Finally. It only took about fifty dead undercovers to get there.) and have made the whole thing way more regimented and tightly controlled. (Lots more paperwork, too.) These bureaucratic precautions have made undercover work more rare and much safer. It also took all the fun out of it, and I had a great time working UC.
I talk about some of those great times in GOING UNDER: Kidnapping, Murder, And A Life Undercover, which brought back memories, some fond, some not so much, but all down on paper now, telling the story of how undercover worked once upon a time. And just like the old days, I didn’t have to lie much about it at all. Changed a few names, narrowed a couple of time frames, but for the most part, told it like it was and never will be again. It was a helluva ride.