Going Undercover

It's tough enough being a female on a police force full of male officers, but what is tougher is taking on non-traditional assignments within this non-traditional occupation. When I say "undercover drug operator," we ordinarily think of a male officer. We can even envision what he would look like with his long hair, full beard and 'stashe, grubby clothing, a big chain attached to his wallet and lots of big silver rings. His fingers would be stained with tobacco and he would smell like day old alcohol--like he's just been on a bender. Now that is an undercover operator. It's not too often you think of a female in this position. Long hair--yeah, so what. Rings on her fingers--no big deal. And as for the beard and 'stashe--forget it! Interestingly enough, with a little makeup and some creative thinking, a once beautiful young police officer can be transformed into an excellent undercover cop--track marks on her arms, black circles under her eyes, dry lips, a couple of tattoos, hair greasy and matted. And of course, an interesting choice of clothing would top it all off.

But it is not only the appearance of a female officer that stands in the way of being an accepted undercover cop; it is the work itself. Police service cultures can be hard to crack as a female coming into a male dominated world, especially in smaller police departments, or those who have only a few female officers. But once in the police service, trying to get into a specialty section can be challenging. Many are mini- "old boys" clubs, and in some of them women just aren't welcome. Emergency Response or SWAT teams are one example of boys clubs that aren't very accepting of female officers. Their claim to fame is that women aren't strong enough to carry them out of a building if they've been shot, and therefore shouldn't be on the team (I could argue that two ways to Sunday). But what about sections in police services that do not require brute strength, such as drug enforcement or major crimes? Vice sections seem to accept female officers because they make good undercover prostitutes, but drug work still seems like men's work. Kinda like taking out the garbage and changing the oil on the car.

Standing in the shoes of a male officer in the drug section, I could understand their position. Many of the high-end dealers are male and usually sell to other men. Women are used more for carriers of drugs and are not really high-end sellers themselves. So, to be an undercover drug agent as a woman, you wouldn't be able to achieve a high enough status to get the "big guy." Plus, there is all of the potential sexual stuff that could get mixed into things. What if the target wants to sleep with the agent? If it was a male officer, you could rest assured this is not a potential situation for them. But for a female agent, it certainly could be. But there are tons of ways drug undercover work can be done--you just need a little imagination. We have had some excellent female undercover agents. We have also had some female officers who end up doing most of the paperwork or the exhibits or writing up the warrants, instead of being front line on the drug busts.

A female officer friend of mine changed police services and went overseas to work. Her first assignment was to go undercover with another female officer from Canada, and get the big drug busts. Having lived a fairly sheltered police career in little old Saskatoon, with the odd hooker sting under her belt, she couldn't even imagined what she was about to experience. Lucky she didn't have a husband or children to worry about at the time. Her life was threatened, and the big drug dealer she was working on ended up dead within a month of her being there. And she had to come up with all kinds of tricks to deal with the culture she became immersed in. Of course, to make sure she wasn't a cop, they wanted her to use the drugs as well. She had to do everything from starting a fist fight to passing out "drunk," and much, much worse...you get the picture.

Undercover work can be a life-changing experience for anyone. Some officers are naturals at it. Some have to work a little harder to be believable. Female officers, if they can get into the section in the first place, will face additional challenges of doing certain types of undercover work. But I think that's why we go into policing--for the challenge...isn't it?