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Undercover Law Enforcement Agents: Should There be Limits?

U/C: In the legal community stands for Undercover Agent.

Should there be limits to what undercover agents can do in order to infiltrate the organization they are investigating?

Undercover work, especially long term and what is referred to as "deep cover" agents are always in great danger. I was very close to a D.E.A. undercover agent, we worked together for many years before and after his "deep cover" assignment . He had what I consider one of the most deadly assignments. He worked undercover for over four years before he was able to infiltrate the Hell's Angels gang. I am certain that if his cover had been compromised, they would have killed him.  I remember the looks his so called 'brothers' gave him as they watched from the defendants' seats in the Federal Courthouse, Florida as he took the stand, cleaned up, with his short cropped hair and neatly shaven face. It was a far cry from his undercover appearance.

Before my friend went undercover, the United States government created a completely new identity for him. He had a new name, drivers license, credit cards, social security card, a criminal rap sheet that falsified several convictions, a falsified credit history and much more. He had his "cover address" which is where he resided for most of the four years. He was permitted time to go home and be with family, but it was difficult to arrange. Needles to say his marriage did not survive.

Undercover work (especially for prolonged periods) can be hazardous to an officer's psychological and physical well being. To begin, for an undercover cop to pass for and be accepted as a criminal, he or she has to think and act like a habitual offender. The U/C is always on stage and must perform accordingly as one mistake could jeopardize the operation and/or place the officer in grave physical danger.

But what happens when they (and it is a given that they will) witness heinous crimes being committed in front of their eyes? They can't just jump up and intervene, can they? Loss of credibility leading to a blown identity while investigating violent criminals can be life threatening. My friend had no doubt that if the Angels had discovered he was a cop they would have killed him on the spot.

U/C's will find themselves witnessing offenses committed by members of criminal organizations, a scenario that can trigger a serious moral dilemma. Should they attempt to intervene and stop the crime, or remain passive and protect their undercover identity? In Dallas, a U/C feigned sickness (so as not to participate) and watched as gang members raped a woman in the course of a violent physical attack. The officer justified his inaction afterward, noting that he didn't want to ruin his credibility. 

Another sensitive moral issue is that of U/C's having sexual relations (to gain information) with individuals they are investigating. During the course of an undercover operation, a federal agent impregnated a member of the radical Weather Underground. The agent talked her into having an abortion, and the relationship ended when he was sent on another assignment. The woman never learned his true identity. Read about it here.

I understand the need for undercover police work. Without it, we would be unable to combat prostitution rings, drug cartels, street gangs, outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) and extremist groups on both the political left and right including the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads, and militant separatist groups.

Here are my questions:

1. How far should law enforcement be permitted to go undercover in order to bring down dangerous and violent criminals.  Law enforcement can deny that undercover officers actually participate in any of the illegal acts of the groups they have infiltrated. You be the judge. Do you think the Hells Angels would allow a man to remain a member if he refused their initiation ritual of having sex with the hogs' women? If he said, "I'll pass", every time drugs were offered? I know that agents are trained to assimilate the use of drugs, but folks, if your life depends on it, are you going to try and fool a Colombian drug lord or the head of the Hell's Angels or the Outlaws?

So how far should they be permitted to go? Should they have to stick to the law just like your average Joe Q. Citizen? Should there be limits to what criminal activity they can and cannot participate in or observe? Should their behavior be excused (up to an extent-I mean we cannot justify a murder just so a cop can join an organized crime group)? Do you feel like we should just look the other way and leave it up to the trained law enforcement agent to use his years of training, education and experience to determine what is and is not necessary?  Do the means (undercover officers participating in criminal activity) justify the end (putting the dirt bags behind bars)?

2. Do you think there should be a time limit for deep undercover work? Should an agent be required to come out from deep cover after a period of time? Is it inevitable that an U/C will eventually begin to merge with his cover after pretending to be someone else for so long?

3. Could you be married to or in a serious relationship with a law enforcement officer who will spend months and even years in deep undercover situations?  These officers are necessary. They are however, trained to lie. They become exceptionally deceptive or else they would not make it in their line of work. Would you have a difficult time trusting someone whose life is living a lie and making others believe that lie?

The end of April is near. Make an effort to give it a final push and continue to visit as any new bloggers who are participating in the A to Z blogging challenge.


Melissa Sugar said...

When I was a teenager I wanted to be an undercover. The moment I decided this I accepted that I would not be able to have a family or any long term relationship. When life threw me a curve ball and I was unable to go don that path (I had children) I decided it would not be fair to them.

I do not think an undercover can avoid breaking the law when undercover. I mean like you said they are dealing with some very dangerous people who do not play. I think there are just a lot of grey areas in this line of work that can cause a person to walk a tight rope between the job and breaking the law.

I enjoyed this post and look forward to reading more. From A to Z.

Melissa Sugar said...

I think it would be almost impossible to be in a serious relationship with a person in this line of work.  

Melissa Sugar said...

It's certainly something that had not occurred to me before...I wonder if certain guidelines are expected to be met or if the agents in question are told to react with their gut instincts.

Melissa Sugar said...

Wow--those are complicated questions. I'm not sure of the answers to the first two, but as for the third, I think that for some individuals it would be possible; though personally, I'd find it uncomfortable to know someone was that skilled at lying and had experienced who knows what while undercover.
The Golden EagleThe Eagle's Aerial Perspective

Melissa Sugar said...

This is a very thought provoking post. I struggle with answering those questions every time I watch a show or a movie that simulates the UC and some of these dilemas. I would say right now anything short of murder to protect their cover and by association their life, would be acceptable if the organization was crippled by the case the UC helped bring against them. These people who go under cover have my respect I'll say that. And for the record I did laugh at the OMG symbolism!

Melissa Sugar said...

Great blog.  Interesting topics.  You pose some provocative and important questions about undercover police work. 

Melissa Sugar said...

This is really interesting. The process of undercover police work has always fascinated me. It must be amazing difficult to work undercover, to give up your whole life and take another, but it is also an amazing accomplishment. Of course the ends can sometimes justify the means for such work. I think I draw the line at crimes such as rape and murder. I think that it also depends on the situation. Should there be a time limit? It once again depends on the situation but I think U/C officers should have to met with a therapist often to unsure that they are doing ok emotionally. Could I be in a relationship with a U/C? Yes I could, if I loved the person.

Melissa Sugar said...

do you think that undercover agents have sex with the criminals they are investigating as an undercover agent but are married at the same time.

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