UNDERCOVER OFFICERS AT THE HONOLULU POLICE DEPARTMENT

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  pfitzge379@aim.com .

 

Introduction

 

This study focuses on undercover officers working in the Narcotics Vice Division at the Honolulu Police Department. Their close association with the criminal element, along with the continual exposure to drugs suggested that undercover police work might impact the behaviors, attitudes and beliefs of the officers that engage in this line of law enforcement. 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). This paper examines an urban police department’s undercover officers’ perceptions regarding their experiencing fear, stress, and nervousness while engaging in operations necessary to performing the duties required in this line of police work. Patrol officers were also surveyed as the comparison group.

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 this survey and that anecdotal evidence would prove to be more beneficial for studying the officers. The anecdotal evidence could ultimately support or refute the analyzed quantitative data from the surveys. 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 from 1998 to 2002 that entailed the researcher being allowed access to the officers in the Narcotics Vice Division and a group of Patrol Division officers. These groups were titled Narco I, Narco II, and Patrol I. The researcher was invited to social events in local bars that the officers frequented both on and off-duty. The researcher subsequently was able to conduct interviews with the undercover officers. In addition, the researcher, under the guidance of the narcotics officers, was given information regarding the buy-busts, sting operations on strip clubs, and was allowed to attempt to make a buy from a drug dealer.

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, do not give the researcher enough access to the necessary data. 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 (pp. 21-22).

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.

Research Examining Undercover Police Officers

In 1983 Dr. Gary Farkus’ study of the Narcotics Vice Division of the Honolulu Police Department, 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.

In 1980, the Federal Bureau of Investigation studied its own undercover operatives. The findings 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." This researcher observed 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 by being introduced in by a gatekeeper. The researcher eventually had considerable access to the officers and was able to observe them in a capacity not allowed to most 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 (1987).

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. In a more recent study by Band and Sheehan (1999) at the Behavioral Science Unit of 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).

Dangers Associated with Undercover Operations

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 agents engaged in re-operational, operational, and post operational undercover work suffered extreme psychiatric. The incidence of psychiatric disturbance and severity of symptoms were found to be highest among active undercover agents.

METHODOLOGY

For the survey the concepts of law enforcement and police work were substituted for undercover and role-playing. In addition to the use of the survey instrument the researcher engaged in informal field observations, over a time period of four years, in order to utilize qualitative data to support or refute the results of the survey. The observer acted as an outside observer, not in the capacity of a law enforcement officer. Due to the fact that the observer was a civilian, access was sometimes generally severely restricted or limited. The observer was able to slowly make acquaintances over time, with several of the officers, through casual contacts, while in an academic setting. There was also an anonymous "gatekeeper", who played a key role in enabling the observer to gain closer access to this group. These two factors enabled the observer to gain more access than would have normally been allowed to most civilians. After the distribution of the first survey instrument the researcher began to develop closer relationships with the officers in this division. This allowed for many informal interviews and information about the groups activities both on and off-duty.

An instrument was developed with forty-two (42) questions. The instrument contained one hundred and thirty variables that related to stress or symptoms of stress, as well as role-playing and undercover work. Forty surveys were distributed on two separate occasions over two years to the Narcotics Vice group. The Patrol Division was added as a control group in the 2nd distribution. They will be called hereafter Narco I, Narco II and Patrol I groups. There were a total of 40 surveys, distributed to the Narco I group, out of which 36 were returned. Forty surveys were distributed to the Narco II officers, out of which 26 were returned. A total of 17 surveys out of 40 were returned by the Patrol I group.

Operationalization of the Concepts

The Concept of Stress

Stress taxes the system and the responses of the system. An event that is experienced by the individual as change is stressful to some degree. Hans Selye (1952) believed that there were "race horse" types who thrive on stress. "Turtles" have to have a tranquil environment, which would frustrate most "race horse" types. Suppressing stress or keeping it "bottled up" inside can alter one’s mood, impair effective cognitive processes and dramatically change personality (Coman, Evans, Stanley, 1992).

The Concept of Danger

In addition to the danger associated with policing, the danger to officers working in undercover work is thought to be 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).

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.

The Definition of Role-Playing

The third concept is role-playing. Turner (1978) states that,

"as a compliment to the familiar idea of self-conception, the concept of role-person merger is proposed as a more behavioral approach to understanding the social construction of personality than has been taken previously. Person and the role are said to be merged when there is a systematic pattern involving failure of role compartmentalization, resistance to abandoning a role in the face of advantageous alternative roles, and the acquisition of role-appropriate attitudes."

This concept was operationalized as an independent variable.

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.

Operationalization of the Attributes

The models for the concepts and attributes were defined according to whether they were an attribute, a behavior or a belief, so as to operationalize the questions around them. They are listed as; 1.) Danger is a belief. 2.) Undercover work, which is defined as a behavior. 3.) Role-playing was defined as an attitude, a belief and a behavior. 4.) Stress was a belief, a behavior and an attitude. 5.) Fear was a belief, a behavior, and an attitude. 6.) Anxiety was operationalized as a belief, a behavior, and an attitude. 7.) Health was operationalized as a belief. The questions were then listed out and compared against the concepts to see if they had face validity. If the question asked did not represent the concept, it was eliminated. Could the population be generalized from the data available in the survey? It was determined that, though this was not a typical sample population, that would have predictive validity, that the data derived could be considered valid due to the fact that this was an elite group.

The Pre-Test and Final Distribution of the Instrument

To determine if the questions would be easy to understand, or needed to be more adapted to the officer performing undercover work undercover officers pre-tested the survey. Suggestions were made with respect to ranks of officers and re-stating of certain questions pertaining to undercover work or organizational procedures. These changes were incorporated in the final instrument.

This pre-test was distributed to seven respondents to determine the time it would take to fill out the questionnaire. It was noted by the officer, who distributed the pre-test instrument, that the average time was 7.47 minutes. It was also noted by the officer, who distributed the pre-test, that all of the questions were understandable to the respondents.

Out of the first survey distributed, forty-one (41) surveys given out, thirty-six (36) surveys were returned. A second set of 40 surveys were distributed two years later to a second group of Narcotics Vice officers. Out of the surveys distributed, 26 were returned. Forty surveys were distributed to a group of patrol officers of which 17 were returned.

ANALYSIS OF FINDINGS

The respondents were asked how frequently that they role-played or impersonated criminals while performing policing assignments. A majority of undercover officers from the first group surveyed reported that they role-played. Thirty-nine percent (14 officers) from this group reported that they sometimes impersonated criminal types and 33% (12 officers) of the Narco I group always role-played. The respondents from the Patrol I group never engaged in role-playing.

How often do police assignments require you to role-play or impersonate criminal types (e.g. prostitutes, "johns", drug pushers or drug addicts)?

 

Subject Narco I Narco II Patrol I

Response

 

Never 28 % 36 % 100 %

Sometimes 39 % 31 %

Always 33 % 35 %

 

More narcotics officers from the Narco II group than the Narco I or Patrol I respondents reported that they experienced fear when working in an undercover capacity. Thirty-eight percent of these officers reported that they sometimes feared for their personal safety and 42% always feared for their personal safety.

 

 

 

When working in a law enforcement/undercover capacity, I fear for my personal safety.

Subject Narco I Narco II Patrol I

Response

 

Never 39 % 15 %

Sometimes 33 % 38 % 17 %

Always 28 % 42 %

 

More officers from the Narco I group reported that when they engaged in undercover work that involved drugs they experienced anxiety. The total percentage of these officers that sometimes or always experienced anxiety was 60%. Slightly more Patrol I and Narco II officers than the Narco I group reported that they never experienced anxiety when they were involved with drug activity while working in a law enforcement capacity.

When I engage in undercover/police work that involves drug activity, I find that it causes me anxiety.

 

Subject Narco I Narco II Patrol I

Response

 

Never 42 % 58 % 59 %

Sometimes 31 % 35 % 29 %

Always 29 % 8 % `12 %

 

The Patrol I respondents had more officers reporting that they experienced stress when they performed policing assignments. Seventy-six percent of the patrol respondents sometimes experienced stress and 23% reported that they always experienced stress while acting in this capacity. The Narco II officers had more 15% officers than Narco I that experienced stress when working undercover assignments. There were more officers in Narco I reporting that they never experienced stress than in Narco II. Thirty-three percent of the Narco I group reported that they never experienced stress while operating in an undercover capacity.

 

I experience stress while performing undercover/police assignments.

 

Subject Narco I Narco II Patrol I

Response

 

Never 33 % 19 %

Sometimes 47 % 73 % 76 %

Always 19 % 8 % 23 %

 

More officers in the Narco I than the Narco II group reported that they felt nervous when they acted in a law enforcement capacity. Forty-two percent of this group sometimes felt nervous and 33% of the officers from this group, always felt nervous. Fifty-nine percent of the Patrol I officers reported that they never felt nervous while acting in a law enforcement capacity. The percentage of Patrol I officers that responded in this category was 59%.

When acting in an undercover/law enforcement capacity, I feel nervous.

 

Subject Narco I Narco II Patrol I

Response

 

Never 25 % 38 % 59 %

Sometimes 42 % 58 % 29 %

Always 33 % 4 % 12 %

 

More Patrol I officers believed that working police assignments was detrimental to their health. Forty-one percent from this group believed that police assignments were sometimes detrimental and 29% believed that police assignments were always detrimental to their health. Six-percent more narcotics officers from the Narco II group believed that working undercover was detrimental to their health compared to the Narco I officers. Forty-four percent of the officers from the Narco I group reported that working undercover was never detrimental to their health. This was 15% more than the Patrol I

officers that responded in this category.

 

Working undercover/police assignments has a detrimental effect on my health.

 

Subject Narco I Narco II Patrol I

Response

 

Never 44 % 35 % 29 %

Sometimes 36 % 38 % 41 %

Always 19 % 23 % 29 %

 

Eighty-three percent of the officers in the Narco I group reported that they always had to make split-second decisions that could have had serious consequences. The Narco II officers had a higher percentage of officers overall that either sometimes or always had to make split-second decisions. Six-percent of the officers from the Patrol I group believed that they never had to make split-second decisions that could have had serious consequences.

I have had to make split-second decisions, while working undercover/or as a police officer, that could have serious consequences.

 

Subject Narco I Narco II Patrol I

Response

 

Never 8 % 4 % 6 %

Sometimes 8 % 19 % 12 %

Always 83 % 77 % 71 %

 

Sixty-nine percent of the officers from the Narco I group reported that they had never experienced events while working undercover that were unusually frightening. The Narco I group had the largest number of officers that reported experiencing frightening events. Thirty-four percent of the officers from this group sometimes experienced frightening events and 15% reported that they always experienced frightening events while working undercover.

 

 

I have experienced events at work, while working undercover/as a police officer, that were unusually frightening to me (e.g.: threat of death or injury to myself or someone else).

 

Subject Narco I Narco II Patrol I

Response

 

Never 69 % 50 % 65 %

Sometimes 22 % 34 % 23 %

Always 8 % 15 % 12 %

 

 

DISCUSSION

Officers assigned to the Narcotics Vice Division reported more often than patrol officers that they had to engage in policing assignments that required them to role-play or impersonate criminals. The researcher noted during the five-year study that these types of roles were more often that of drug addicts, "johns," or males attempting to solicit prostitutes or strippers in local strip clubs. The survey data showed that none of the patrol officers surveyed reported that they worked undercover in any capacity. The second survey showed that 8% more officers from the Narco II group did not role-play in any capacity. Thirty-nine percent of the officers in the Narco I group reported that they would sometimes engage in role-playing criminal types while 33% from this group always worked undercover.

There was a 2% difference between the two groups of Narcotics Vice officers that always role-played. Based upon anecdotal evidence gathered during the interviews with the officers working this detail, there were complaints of budget cuts in the division that may have restricted the amount of surveillance at the time of the second survey. A

Narcotics Vice Division officer stated in a recent article (Star-Bulletin, May 24, 2002) that the division was very limited in terms of resources.

Thirty-nine percent more officers in the Narco I group compared to the Patrol I group reported that they never experienced fear while working undercover. The officers in the Patrol I group responses showed that 17% reported that they sometimes fearing for their personal safety while performing their jobs. Overall 19% more narcotics officers in Narco II than the Narco II group reported that they feared for their safety while working. The officers from the Narco I and II groups reported slightly higher numbers of respondents that suffered from anxiety. Twenty-nine percent of the Narco I officers reported that they always experienced anxiety when performing assignments that involved drug activity. Overall, the Narco II officers had more officers than the Narco I group reporting that they experienced fear, anxiety, nervousness, and fright. The Patrol I group reported that they experienced stress and believed that their work was more detrimental to their health more than the officers from the Narcotics Vice groups.

The patrol officers have contact with suspects that use drugs and they generally turn the suspects over to narcotics officers that are working lock-up duty. Many officers that were interviewed stated that buy busts were the most anxiety-producing situations for them when they were working undercover. The officers also provided accounts of dangerous and frightening events to the researcher. One officer told of how he had his life threatened by drug dealers when a buy-bust went bad. The covert informant that was involved in setting up the drug deal was also threatened. Prior too many operations the officers expressed nervousness to the researcher. They also reported that they felt afraid. These accounts are consistent with the literature on undercover policing.

Nervousness, fear and anxiety that the officers report are symptoms of stress. The findings from the survey data showed that 73% of the officers from the Narco II Group reported that they sometimes felt stressed while engaging in undercover assignments.

. Seventy-six percent of the Patrol group also reported that they sometimes experienced stress while performing police assignments. The number of officers reporting that they always felt stressed was 4% higher than the Narco I group. The patrol officers had higher numbers that reported experiencing stress than did the narcotics officers. Overall the Narco II group had 15% more officers than the Narco II officers reporting that they experienced stress.

The researcher notes that there is formal scheduling of buys and search warrants along with team efforts with regard to strategic planning of these warrants. The buy-bust operations are schedules but they appeared to be contingent upon the covert informant or dealer showing up at the designated time. The researcher notes that other operations, such as stings, reverse buys and some of the morals detail operations were not suited to formal scheduling.

These officers often have the S.W.A.T. team assisting in the search warrants. The planning involved in both undercover operations and search warrants may reduce some of the stress levels compared to that of the patrol officers. The patrol officers cannot anticipate the nature of the calls that they are dispatched too.

There were a higher number of officers from the Narco I group who reported that they felt nervous compared to the Narco II and Patrol I groups. Twenty-one percent more Narco I officers than Patrol I officers reported that they always felt nervous when acting in a law enforcement or undercover capacity. Fifty-nine percent of the Patrol I group reported never feeling nervous when performing their law enforcement duties.

Some of the data suggests that the patrol group believes that their line of work has more negative effects upon their health than the narcotics officers reported. Twenty-nine percent of the Patrol I group reported that working police assignments always had a detrimental effect on their health. The percentage for the Narco II group was 23% of officers that believed that working undercover was always detrimental on their health. The officers routinely made complaints to the researcher about their health. Some of the officers stated that they suffered from fatigue, bronchial problems, problems sleeping, colds, and flu. Gastro intestinal problems were among some of the other health-related problems.

The literature suggests that split-second decision-making can contribute to an officer’s anxiety levels (Alpert & Dunham, 1998). Split-second decision-making sometimes involves the use of deadly force. Many of the officers interviewed stated that they used split-second decision making on a weekly basis. They also acknowledged that they had to use force on a weekly basis. The officers stated that force generally occurs when suspects are placed under arrest and resist the officers or display aggressive behavior toward the officers. The survey data showed that the officers in the Narco I and Narco II groups reported that they engaged in split-second decision-making slightly more often than the Patrol I officers. The Narco II group had 13% more officers that engaged in this behavior than did the Patrol I group and only 5% more than the officers from the Narco I group.

During this research there were no officers killed while working undercover. One officer that was interviewed gave a detailed account of being beaten by a group of suspects that were under investigation. The U.S. Department of Justice (1998) report indicated that during the years from 1989 through 1998 there were a total of 40 officers killed during drug related matters. The figures also showed that the largest percentages of officers were assigned to vehicle patrol when they were slain (U.S. Department of Justice, 1998: p. 3).

The highest percentage was 34% for the Narco II respondents. This group reported that they sometimes experienced frightening events while working undercover was from the Narco II group. This percentage was 12% higher than the Narco I officers responding in this category and 13% higher than the Patrol I groups responses. Fifteen percent of the Narco II officers reported that they always experienced frightening events while working undercover. The Narco I group had 69% of its officers that reported that they never experienced frightening events while working.

Training may be a factor in lessening the officers’ stress and fear levels that are experienced. The officers attend seminars provided by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. One of the seminars focused on organized crime activity in the Pacific Rim region. Examples of training specific to the Narcotics Vice Division includes clandestine lab training on the chemicals used for illegal drug manufacturing. A large seminar was held while this study was being conducted on gangs and gang-related activities.

The officers working in the Narcotics Vice Division often have to conceal video equipment and other surveillance devices not routinely used by patrol officers. These officers are the "deep" undercover or covert officers. The Morals Officers use miniature video cams while conducting operations on strip clubs and hostess bars. The researcher was able to view an operation utilizing this equipment. The officers participating in the operation went inside of a club with the device and were successful in obtaining a lengthy film of illegal activities occurring in the establishment. Officers were recently criticized by a local reporter for their tactics in these strip clubs (Honolulu Star Bulletin, 2002).

The researcher found that officers working in the Narcotics Vice Division during the time of the study did not assume criminal identities for extensive periods of time. The extent of their operations required them to appear in character for shorter periods of time in order to make several buys in order to make a stronger case against the suspect. Hawaii is unique in that it is on an island which may make it difficult for the undercover officer to preserve his or her identity. The officer also needs to build up a reliable source of informants that can introduce the officer into a location where suspected drug dealing is taking place.

The researcher notes that the officers interviewed reported that they did not use the police psychologist to address any stress that they might experience. The officers were reluctant to utilize this means of coping with work-related stress because they feared that their firearms would be removed or that they would be placed on administrative leave. There is no testing performed unless an officer is sent to Internal Affairs Division for misconduct either criminally or administratively. The only tests that are administered are when an applicant applies to the department for employment as a police officer. The test that is administered at that time is the MMPI. Once an office is successful in gaining admittance to the department no other tests are performed to discern if the officer develops any psychopathology. Many officers were employed by the department prior to any tests being administered. This suggests that further research into performing psychological testing on a routine basis might be beneficial in order to aid officers that are experiencing stressors that could seriously impact their behavior and potentially create problems for officers working undercover.

No conclusions could be drawn regarding the survey data provided by the undercover officers. A further study of this group on a broader scope would be required to determine if stress impacted undercover officers more than their counterparts in the patrol division. This study does lay the foundation and supports further research on this group. The researcher would like to note that certain behaviors known to be inherent in this line of work that is supported by the literature were observed.

The officers engaged in consumption of alcoholic beverages both on and off-duty, drove under the influence of alcohol, engaged in extramarital affairs, engaged in illicit sexual encounters with prostitutes, strippers and women working in local hostess bars (Honolulu Star Bulletin, 2002). Other behaviors noted were abuse of power, use of illegal drugs, improper documentation of evidence from search warrants and not following chain of command with respect to this evidence. The behaviors and activities observed suggest that the officers in this division were unable to compartmentalize their duties as undercover officers with their personal lives. This suggests and supports further research to explore this theory.

 

The findings from this study of the Narcotics Vice Division suggest that:

  1. Undercover work may contribute to symptoms of stress and impact behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes.
  2. Based upon interview and observations of undercover officers at the Honolulu Police Department ongoing testing ongoing psychological testing may be useful in monitoring officers working in this division. Routine administration of psychological tests could aid in detecting symptoms of stress, corruption and deviant behaviors.
  3. Officers could benefit from further administrative support. Officers expressed that the department did not take preventative measures to prevent problems nor did they support officers that got into trouble.
  4. The officers used alcohol and drugs. The observations contradicted the survey responses.
  5. Officers reported that they experienced fear, nervousness, and other stress-related symptomology from both undercover and patrol work.

The researcher concludes that the use of a survey instrument may not be the optimal means by which to study groups of undercover officers. The interviews and long-term observations conducted in close proximity with this group of officers provided insight into an elite group that is normally difficult to access. It is the researcher’s hope that this study will provide support for additional research on undercover police work.

Also by Pam Fitzgerald: Crisis Manual:  Crisis Intervention Plan for Police Department and Undercover Law Enforcement Personnel.

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