Crisis Manual:  Crisis Intervention Plan for Police Department and Undercover Law Enforcement Personnel.

By Pam Fitzgerald, MSCP, MSJCA

Pam Fitzgerald received her Master of Science in Counseling Psychology
and her Master of Science in Criminal Justice Administration from
 Chaminade University in Honolulu. She did research
on the Narcotic Vice Division of the Honolulu Police Department for five
years.  She developed a survey instrument that measured for stress and
 then administered it to three groups of officers between 1998 and 2001.

She will be pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology, and
intends to do a dissertation on the stress of undercover work. She is interested in
finding a department where she could conduct a study with a larger group of officers.
  Police stress and providing counseling to stressed officers
 is the focus of her research and long-term career goals.
She can be reached at .




     Research on police officers and the duties associated with being a law enforcement officer has demonstrated that high levels of stress and behavioral changes occur as a result of this occupation.  Studies on undercover assignments have shown that officers working in this environment are continually subjected to dangerous working conditions (Ellison & Genz, 1983: p. 60).  The researcher conducted a study on a police department’s undercover officers from 1998 through 2002.   These officers perceptions of stress, fear, anxiety, and nervousness, along with other attributes associated with undercover police work were the focus of the study.  Patrol officers were surveyed in order to make comparison between the two groups of officers.  Upon examining the quantitative data and anecdotal information provided by a group of undercover police officers the researcher implemented a plan to address personal crisis in the officers’ lives.  The following information in this chapter will provide an overview of undercover policing in order to provide an overview of the topic.


The Nature of Undercover Police Work

     The undercover agent's accomplishments rely on his/her ability to establish relationships with criminals and drug dealers within their community.  The officers establish these relationships through use of confidential informants who are willing to exchange information.  This relationship is usually formed due to the use of the undercover officer’s discretionary power when executing a buy from a suspect that deals drugs on a limited scale.  The suspect, upon being apprehended, is willing to act as an informant rather than face the risk of incarceration.  This informant provides leads to drug pushers that distribute larger quantities of dangerous drugs.  These ‘larger fish’ in turn are quite willing to provide information to the narcotics vice officers in hopes of getting their charges reduced or eliminated totally.  Undercover officers are in the position to form relationships with individuals or groups that may provide useful information for monitoring existing or future criminal activity. 

     During the initial phases of the development of this project a survey instrument appeared to be the most efficient means for studying three groups of police officers, it was determined, however, that the officers might be reluctant to respond truthfully to certain survey questions and that anecdotal evidence gathered from observations and interviews with officers, in combination with quantitative data, would prove to be more beneficial for studying the officers.  

     The researcher acted as an outside participant observer for the duration of the study and was able to gain access to the undercover officers by means of an informant or ‘gatekeeper.’  The study was done over a five-year period that entailed the researcher being allowed close access to the officers in the Narcotics Vice Division and a group of Patrol Division officers.  The researcher was able to observe the officers in their work routines in their offices and join social events with the officers at local night clubs.  The researcher was able too conduct interviews with the officers in the bars that they frequented both on and off-duty.  In addition, the researcher, under the guidance of the narcotics officers, was given information regarding their search warrants, buy-busts, sting operations on strip clubs, and even attempted a drug buy from a drug dealer after being documented as a covert informant.   

     Barker’s study (1999) of the Los Angeles Police Departments police officers was conducted over a period of many years beginning in 1976.  Barker’s research focused on street officers and provides support for the methodology utilized in this study of the Narcotics Vice Division.  Barker found that police are known for being difficult to research and that the usual methods that have been employed in the past, such as ‘ride-alongs’ or joining a department does not give the researcher enough access to the necessary data (pp.21-22).  Instead she found that a long-term, intensive study that involved close interaction with this population was found to be more effective in obtaining knowledge of the features that surround this subculture. 


A Brief History of Undercover Policing

     Since the time that Marx (1988) wrote on undercover work there has been almost no comprehensive analysis of undercover practices.  Marx was able to give a historical account of undercover practices in the early eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England and France and subsequently in the United States. French and English innovations of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries underlie American undercover practices (p. 17-35).  One of the most notable originators of the use of covert operations in France was Francois Vidocq (1775-1857).

     Vidocq’s great innovation was to have police agents become directly involved in the criminal world.  He believed that “crime can only be fought by criminals” and that “it takes a thief to catch a thief”.  His first detectives were former criminals.  They were paid from secret funds not shown on the official budget.  His tactics led him to make significant arrests within the Paris underworld (Marx, 1988; p. 18).  Role-playing was an essential element which allowed the police to be indistinguishable from the criminals. 


Previous Research Examining Undercover Police Officers

     Dr. Gary Farkus (1983) performed a study at the Narcotics Vice Division of the Honolulu Police Department.  His research indicated that the officers in the Narcotics Vice Division were affected by the nature of the undercover duties that they performed (p. 54).  Many inherent stressors in police work had previously been identified and when this study was conducted there appeared to be some indication of possible stressors resulting from undercover police work.  These were plainclothes officers, officers who took temporary roles, and officers who worked deep undercover assignments for longer periods of time.  Statistically significant group differences were reported at the time of the survey (Farkus, 1983).  The results of Dr. Farkus’ studies indicated a relationship between psychiatric symptoms and undercover work.  The symptoms most commonly reported as frequently occurring were anxiety, loneliness and isolation, relationship problems, and “suspiciousness” (Farkus, 1983).   Dr. Farkus developed his own survey instrument for purposes of the research at this time (Farkus,1983: p.54).  Dr. Farkus has not conducted any further research in this area.

     The FBI (1980) performed a study on its own undercover operatives.  The study showed that there were additional problems associated with undercover work and role-playing such as personality, physical changes, depression, and problems at home and at work. 

          Marx (1988: p.11-12) describes overt police work which is the most predominant.  He states that, “In conventional criminal investigations, victims, witnesses, or others notify police that a crime has occurred.”    During this study, the researcher was able to observe this type of overt behavior by undercover officers along with more covert operations.  The researcher was able to gain the trust of the undercover officers in Narcotics Vice over a period of time along and with repeated contacts gained the trust of the undercover officers in the Narcotics Vice Division.  This repeated exposure           enabled the researcher to observe the officers in a capacity normally not allowed to civilians. 

      Undercover policing, as an occupation, has a limited amount of research performed.  The literature is not as extensive compared to that of police work.  The media and literary authors have often used undercover operations as a popular theme.  Some of these stories have been based in truth and are valuable tools for information about the subject.  Books and movies about detectives and F.B.I. agents, like Joe Pistione, have been based on factual information. 

Stress and Undercover Work

     Undercover work, due to problems associated with it, also has the potential for an inherently dangerous environment.   Michel Girodo’s (1991) work is significant because it is some of the first empirical research into psychiatric symptoms associated with undercover policing.  Girodo found that psychiatric symptoms occurred in agents that had engaged in undercover work.  These symptoms were examined in a cross-sectional study of undercover agents in a federal law enforcement agency (p.300).  The highest incidences of psychiatric disturbance were found to be the highest among the active undercover agents.  Girodo also compared these symptoms with those experienced by prisoners of war (p. 301).

     Mental disturbances were more prominent among inexperienced agents with limited or no former undercover activity.  These agents were usually engaged in long-term investigations.  The symptomatic profiles of distressed agents were similar in pattern to those of general psychiatric outpatients.  Girodo (1991) states that role-generalization is the most prevalent change in undercover agents.   It is typically manifested by a propensity to employ the language and social style of the criminal group that had been infiltrated.  It can extend into secondary alterations in department and interpersonal manner and is not unlike what is seen in military recruits when they first return from boot camp.

      The essence of all undercover investigations is that of developing relationships and ultimately betraying them.  Other research indicates that many undercover operatives have difficulty in this role.  A more recent study by Band and Sheehan (1999) at the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy, the stressors most encountered by undercover agents are lack of management commitment, personal problems, personal relationships with suspects, over-identification with suspects, loss of personal identity, fear of discovery, technical difficulties, interagency cooperation, lack of recovery time, lack of context, and unsuitable roles.

     Undercover agents, according to Band and Sheehan (1999), believe drinking heavily or developing promiscuous relationships may occur.  Criminal suspects possess good qualities, as well as bad ones.  If a suspect has children this compounds the difficulties in making a case against the criminal.  There is also the hazard of over-identification with the suspect and loss of identity.  When the officer or agent fears discovery this poses a great deal of stress.  The other element is that of wearing a wire in an undercover operation.  The inability to obtain emotional recovery often frustrates and stresses officers.  Differences in procedures while working with other agencies can also add to the stress as well as individuals who must betray their ethnic, cultural or geographic backgrounds can also produce tense situations (1999; pp.2-3).

     The research mentioned previously performed by the FBI (1980) noted there were difficulties for the agents that operated in an undercover capacity.  Generally these symptoms are considered to be symptomatic of stress.   

     Marx further supports this theme in those officers that he interviewed who testified that they had “changed after being buried in deep-cover operations (1988:p.164-165).”   The officers, who were operating undercover in the San Jose Police Department, experienced feelings of nervousness and fear.  They also reported experiencing a transitional feeling that they describe as “not feeling like a cop (p.164).”  This trait is similar to Farkus’ (1980) study of undercover officers experiencing sympathetic feelings towards the criminal under investigation, as well as “corrosion” of the operative's value system (Farkus, 1980: p.433).


Other Dangers Associated with Undercover Operations

     In other literature reviewed it was found that four out of five officers (83%) are slain while executing a search for people or evidence related to drug offenses (Alpert, Dunham, 1997).  Nine out of every ten of the slain were undercover officers working on drug cases.  More detectives were killed at entry on a search warrant and the percentages of undercover officers killed while executing a search warrant was 25%.  Of other officers, 30% killed were related to drug offenses (1997).  These numbers clearly show that there are other hazards associated with covert operations that go beyond the scope of routine police work.

     Michael Girodo’s (1991) work, as mentioned previously, is significant because it is some of the first research into stress associated with undercover policing.  Girodo found that the idea of extreme psychiatric symptoms in agents engaged in undercover work was examined in a synchronous cross-sectional study of re-operational, operational, and post operational undercover agents in a federal law enforcement agency.  The incidence of psychiatric disturbance and severity of symptoms were found to be highest among active undercover agents.


The Concept of Danger

     In addition to the danger associated with policing, the danger to officers working in undercover work is elevated.  According to Geoffrey P. Alpert in Critical Issues in Policing, four out of five officers slain while executing a search warrant were searching for people or evidence related to drug offenses.  Nine of every ten of the slain undercover officers were working on drug cases.  When executing search warrants on clandestine laboratories undercover officers typically are exposed to dangerous chemicals like hydriodic acid and red phosphorous (U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, June 1995). 


The Concept of Undercover Police Work

     Undercover work involves police officers who work at a long-term tasks where they conceal their true identities as law enforcement personnel in order to obtain enough evidence to arrest and prosecute people engaged in illegal activities such as drug trafficking.  Some times they will even live within the target population.  Property and drug crimes are the major focus of the investigations (Girodo, 1991).  Operations can last for a day or two but can commonly extend to weeks, months and even years.   According to Kroes (1976), undercover assignments, whose very attributes, produce stress, in addition to police departments’ under extreme pressure for fulfilling quotas, added to the fact that association with narcotics, enhances the danger levels to high levels for undercover officers. 


Part I:  Type of Crisis and Assessment of the Crisis

     As previously mentioned there are many factors that can lead to stress or crisis situations in law enforcement and undercover work.  Some of the stressors and problems resulting from stress are anxiety, depression, post-shooting trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, police burn-out, alcoholism, family relationships, organizational dysfunction, suicide ideation and suicide.  Officers also experience other types of problems such as physical difficulties, patterns of domestic abuse, suspensions from duty, and removal of their firearms.  Split-Second Decision Making can also lead to problems for the officers. 

     Policing and the hazards associated with this occupation place police officers in the category of victims.  They are also victimized by the paramiliteristic hierarchy of the police organizational structure, the public, and the media.  The following is a guideline for identifying the cause of the problem.

1.)    Identify the crisis. 

a.      Is this a “basic empathy” situation.  Does the individual just want to talk?  Is this a situation that can lead to imminent danger or harm to the individual or others?  How many people are involved in the crisis?  Make eye contact and provide the officer with information regarding who you are.    Identification of the crisis will be the first step.

b.       Provide empathy, gather information, and provide referrals. 

c.      Identify the basic needs of the individual and assess for lethality.  Does this person not feel well physically?  What is the mental status of the officer?  Has the officer eaten?  Has the officer slept?  Is there any danger or threat to the officer/s?

d.      Assess the officer’s understanding of the situation.  Ask the officer what he /she has been told about the interview/meeting.  Ask the officer what is expected.  Ask the officer how he or she is feeling.

e.      Assess and report, with conclusions, the presence of any of the following:

      Visual impairment, hearing impairment, impaired speech and affect.  Be

      attentive to the officer’s possible limitations of hearing and vision.

f.        Obtain fully informed and voluntary consent to the interview or evaluation.  Explain the purposes of the interview.  Attend to the officers and examiner’s perceived expectations of the referring agent; what information is to be gathered, by what means; what is then to be done; and, if a report is written or made, who will see it. 

g.      Inquire if the officer is currently taking any medication.  Obtain the prescribed dosage and frequency.  What is the officer’s current use of alcohol and other drugs?

h.      Elicit the chief concern or complaint.  Some of the following questions may be helpful in obtaining information:

Would you please tell me why you are here?

What brings you to my office?

What concerns you the most?

What has been going on?

Why have you come to see me?

What has happened to you?

What do you hope to have happen?


i.        What is the officer’s understanding of the problem?  Some initial questions will be useful in understanding the presenting problem.

What do you think caused your problem?

Do you have an explanation for why it started when it did?

How severe is your problem?

What does your problem do to you?

How long is it expected to last?

What problems have resulted from your complaint?

What do you fear about your problem?

What kind of treatment do you think that you should receive?

What are the most important results you hope to receive from this assessment?


j.        It will be important to determine the length and duration of the problem

                        or crisis. 

                        How long has the problem been going on?  What led up to the problem?

                        How typical is the problem?

                        Who else was around and how did they feel? How do you feel?

                        What else happened and what could have made a difference in the


                        What are stressors exist that may contribute to this problem?

                       Does the office have support systems in place?

k.      Use a “Mental Status Evaluation Checklist.”  Please refer to following page for checklist.  The following list is based upon Zuckerman’s (1998) Mental Status Evaluation Checklist from the clinician’s Thesarus (1997).  Some of the original questions, found in Zuckerman’s checklist, have been altered for application to law enforcement personnel for purposes of this crisis intervention plan.  The TAF or Triage Assessment Form (Myer, Williams, Ottens, Schmidt, 1991) is another assessment tool available for crisis personnel.