We use both our own and third-party cookies for statistical purposes and to improve our services. If you continue to browse, we consider that you accept the use of these.
  • Celebrating 20 Years of Training Excellence 2004-2024

Article #1 – Undercover Operations

The use of undercover (UC) officers is a time-tested investigative technique where disguises and pretexts are used to gain the confidence of known or suspected criminals in order to undermine their illegal activities.
UC officers perform one of the most dangerous assignments in law enforcement. They come face to face with criminals as the crime is occurring. A criminal may not hesitate to rob or even kill a UC officer if he believes the person is also a criminal, such as a competing drug dealer. Suspects reason that their victims will either not report the crime, or their death will not generate much police interest.
UC officers must adequately prepare for every assignment they face. If the UC officer is exposed as a police officer, it could create serious safety problems for him and any confidential informant who introduced the officer to the criminal.
Officers selected for undercover assignments should have the same traits any other detective has, and be willing to accept the inherent dangers associated with this type of work. Officers unable or unwilling to perform undercover assignments should not be forced by their supervisors to perform these assignments.
An officer selected for an undercover role must possess the necessary sophistication for the assignment. If a UC operation concerns drugs, the officer must have knowledge about drugs in general, and specifically how they are bought, sold, diluted, transported, smuggled, concealed, and used. They must also speak the trafficker’s “language” and know street terminology for different drugs.
He or she must have the appropriate appearance for the role. An officer with a disheveled appearance who is normally assigned to surveillance work may have to become well groomed and tailored if he is plays the role of an investment banker willing to launder a drug dealer’s money. On the other hand, a clean-cut officer must alter his appearance if he hopes to convince a drug dealer he is a homeless drug addict. Appearance is equally important as knowledge and skill.
Once selected to perform an undercover assignment, the officer should review the investigative case file as well as the file of the informant involved. The review should focus on the informant’s past performance and manageability. If the informant has a history of perjury, or is known for embellishment or exaggeration, a prosecutor should review the facts and decide whether this informant should continue to be used to avoid credibility issues later in court.
UC officers must research the criminal history of the informant, and the degree of his past relationship with the suspect(s). The motivation for the informant to provide information to the police must be determined. In short, the UC officer must know as much as he can about the informant’s background so he or she will feel comfortable working with him.
Cover stories are used to prepare the UC officer and informant in answering questions the suspects may ask so the answers are consistently the same. Some background questions that must be agreed upon and memorized are: How did the two meet? When did you meet? Where are you from? What previous experience do you have in criminal activity? UC officers are advised not to say they met their informant in jail since contacts within penal institutions can easily confirm this is not true. If an informant has already answered seemingly innocent questions about the background of the UC officer, he must be thoroughly debriefed on exactly what was asked, and what answers he gave before an introduction of the UC officer to the suspect is made.
Other professional preparations the UC officer must do include acquiring a genuine UC driver license, UC vehicle and registration, UC weapon, credit cards, birth certificate, etc. Genuine UC federal documents such as passports, pilot’s license and Social Security Cards can be obtained through a federal law enforcement agency on a case-by-case basis.
It’s much better to have these documents and not use them, then not have them and suddenly need them to perform an important UC assignment.
There are many things a UC officer must do to prepare for this potentially hazardous assignment, and this bulletin cannot address them all. Officers interested in UC work are encouraged to attend training, engage in role playing exercises, and read as much as they can on the subject before performing their first assignment.

Gregory D. Lee is a retired DEA Supervisory Special Agent and former instructor for the DEA Office of Training at the FBI Academy. He is the author of Global Drug Enforcement: Practical Investigative Techniques, which has an extensive chapter on undercover operations and is available through the Third Degree Communications store. He is now a nationally syndicated columnist and be reached through his website:

If you wish to print and share this Legal Update Training Bulletin with your colleagues, credit must be given to Third Degree Communications, Inc. and the Author.

  • I will continue to use and pass on this information because I really believe in the instructors and their approach.

    —Kimberly Meyer, Washoe County Sheriff's Department
  • Effective teaching teams! The presentation of the material was consistently interesting, and intelligent without being too intellectualized.

    —Michele Keller, Deputy Probation Officer, County of Alameda
  • This training by far has been the most informative and most effective I've attended. The instructors engaged the students in a manner that made me want to speak my opinion, ask questions, and participate.

    —Julio Ibarra, Merced County Sheriff’s Office
  • It not often that you go to a training that you really, really want to pay attention to. Because of the high quality information and style of presentation, I knew that if I looked away I was going to miss out.

    —Quinten Graves, Oregon State Police
  • This training provided the useful tools necessary for assessing the veracity of a suspected child abuser, which goes a long way in helping to protect children.

    —Sunny Burgan, MSSW, LCSW, Social Work Supervisor, Santa Clara County DFCS
  • This was, by far, one of the most useful training classes I've attended since becoming an investigator.

    —Steven Aiello, Antioch Police Department
  • I highly recommend this training for any Probation staff who have the necessity to interview/interrogate individuals for investigation purposes.

    —R. Bret Fidler, Santa Clara County Probation Department
  • Your training gave me the confidence and tools to interview the suspect for over 5 hours and to bring a closure to the case.

    —Daniel Phelan, San Jose Police Department
  • Incredible training with amazing real world instruction. I have been taking law enforcement classes for over 30 years and by far this is the best presented and most useful.

    —Det. Brian Dale, Portland Police Bureau
  • Your training has made the greatest and most direct impact on my assignment of any training class that I've taken.

    —Ken Gelskey, National City Police Department
  • This was, by far and away the best training I have received in 15 plus years of Law Enforcement. The instructors are experienced, engaging, articulate, and very entertaining. I will be recommending this training to multiple agencies.

    —Mark Paynter, Oregon DOC
  • Instructional style is engaging and highly effective.

    —George Laing, Fire Prevention Captain, Investigator
  • The information presented was highly relevant to my job and was presented in a manner that was organized and very easy to digest.

    —Michael McGarvey, California State Prison, San Quentin