Reflections of an undercover officer

A plainclothes officer does not have the protection of a duty belt or badge. Even so, his or her most prevalent injuries remain psychological.

Agency leaders and supervisors need to realize there is a huge difference between regular police work and the undercover realm, and take proper psychological care of their personnel. Fuller describes the uniform as “an electronic field” that keeps the bad stuff out. But when the uniform comes off, there’s no shield other than one’s own values and morals. He adds that “when you realize…hey, I got the skills…I can get a lady to commit a felony, and gladly commit a felony in front of me, that’s pretty powerful.”

On cell phones and screwdrivers

Fuller speaks from his 27-plus years of law enforcement experience with expertise in undercover, electronic surveillance and training; and his time as a Special Agent with the ATF. He believes undercover physical tactics are a significant unrecognized need in law enforcement.
“You have supervisors…test their patrol officer into an undercover unit, and they assume all those fighting tactics they learned at the academy will be what they need over there, and it isn’t at all,” he explains. In fact, the fighting scenario changes in drastic ways when the uniform comes off. One difference is that undercover officers don’t get to start the fight. They also don’t have the luxury of items like a vest, duty belt, (a readily accessible) gun, handcuffs, baton, OC spray, CED, radio, etc.

Undercover trainers stress that officers probably won’t get to their gun in time. So it’s best to find other means of defense. ‘Weapons of opportunity’ might mean a cell phone, or a screwdriver lying on the floor of back seat of a car. Fuller points out that most academies don’t teach students how to fight in a car…however, given the nature of undercover deals and interactions that is precisely where a lot of assaults happen. But it’s not enough to know that a cell phone can be deadly—it should be practiced, too.

“Your brain can’t go where your body hasn’t been,” Fuller says. “And your body has trouble going where your brain hasn’t been. In a violent, physical confrontation, the first place the brain goes is to its training.” Undercovers typically have a body wire, or one-way communication, and gun concealed in a manner where the officer cannot get to it quickly enough. Although they may not have started the fight, these officers need to make sure they finish it. He teaches guys that "in a matter of moments, we‘ve got to hurt [the suspect] so bad that he’s the victim. Now [the suspect] doesn’t have a plan…most agencies don’t recognize the huge physical differences there.”

In a fight there’s no holing off and defending until the rest of the team arrives, they might not show up.

Swapping stories

Many police departments still do not have solid undercover policies in place, and they should. IAUO has a complete, generic undercover policy that agencies might use as a guide when formulating their own. Well-penned policies can help prevent officers going into undercover work from feeling adrift or left to their own devices. Written policy can also help agencies remain aware of necessary training, protocol and procedures to keep officers safe and on-task. Training is out there, too.

Fuller and a range of instructors from across the country share their strategies and tips on how to prepare and handle themselves psychologically, but the classes also teach face-to-face confrontation, what to say when offered drugs, using various fighting techniques, and electronic surveillance tactics. Course leaders strive to keep material current and share what they’ve learned from their own experience.

“That gets me excited…when someone tells me how they dealt with a problem that I’d never heard before,” says Fuller.

“It’s really a personal thing. It’s one-on-one. You can have all the team-planning you want, but when you go there undercover it’s my brain against your brain, that’s it.”