14 October 2011

Playing the Game: Part 1

Welcome back to Friday on the Firing Line. Last time you and I got together, we took a walk on the darker side of the street and had a short look at the shadow life of being undercover, acting in an alternate identity and keeping your story straight. Guess now you're about ready to move on into the realm of Playing the Game.

Active vs. Proactive

Most law enforcement officers are in the position of reacting to a crime which has been committed at a previous time. They get a call, respond to the scene of the crime, interview witnesses (if any) and collect whatever evidence is available. After that, they try to put the pieces together in a logical manner, determine the most likely suspect, build their case for prosecution and go after the criminal.

Undercover is a different animal. Here, the law enforcement officer is proactive instead of reactive. As an undercover operative, he is usually already on scene when prosecutable elements of the crime occur. If all goes as planned, he is the one who acts as witness, he is usually already holding the necessary evidence in hand and he already knows who the criminal offender is.

Getting on Scene

Here's the prologue to getting on scene for the crime to happen. The Undercover (U/C) guy normally has two ways in: the Cold Pitch, or the Informant Introduction.

With the Cold Pitch, an undercover operative introduces himself into the organization or criminal being targeted. How's he do that? Every situation is different. Here's a quick example. At the Sturgis Bike Rally one year, I slid up next to a couple of patch holders in a biker bar and started buying pitchers of beer. Naturally, I had taken the precaution of looking a lot like them before I made my approach. In the ensuing conversation, we swapped names and backgrounds. Of course mine was fictitious, plus I'd set up deep cover for this particular escapade. I soon became a Hang Around. Several months later, I patched in. But Cold Pitches don't always work.

Usually the way these things happen, the U/C guy gets "intro-ed in" by an informant, or Cooperating Individual (C.I.). Most U/C guys prefer the term "C.I.," especially if we're talking in front of that person. Seems the word "snitch" has acquired a negative connotation on the street, and we, being the sensitive people that we are, would rather that our CI's not feel bad about what they are about to do for the good of society. Plus, we don't want them to get a bad attitude and turn on us. However, snitch is the term used by the criminal side in order to convey contempt for those who betray them. Naturally, where you stand on this terminology situation depends upon which side of the line you're on.

Anyway, the U'C and the CI go to a house, bar, parking lot, or wherever the meet is set. The Cooperating Individual introduces and vouches for the U/C. If the criminal side trusts the CI (as much as they trust anybody), then the undercover guy is usually in, but from this point on, he has to carry his own weight, and he'd best do a good job. Fortunately for us, money talks. Like any market place, one party, in this case the criminal, has something to sell, be it drugs, weapons, documents, explosives, stolen goods or counterfeit currency. And, conveniently, the U/C has cash to purchase these items. The stage is set and the crime is about to be committed. The Game is in play.


One small problem with this little event is that the criminal has no rules. Oh sure, he has that one Maxim: Thou shalt not get caught. And, sometimes this makes him cunning, with a bag of tricks.

The U/C on the other hand, has a multitude of rules as mandated by his organization, plus the rule of law. Being a fed, my Special Agent Manual was over two inches thick, and that was just one book of rules we had to follow. In short, the bad guys had their game and we had ours. They did whatever they could to sell their product, make a profit and not get caught. We relied on blue smoke and mirrors, a con man's game, in order to be on scene when the crime was committed, bust the criminal at some point, and yet walk away without violating any laws or agency rules. Sometimes it was like tight rope balancing on a high voltage wire. No missteps allowed.

Often, for one reason or another, the deal didn't go down, the criminal skated and we didn't get him that day. Maybe he got spooked, or maybe he just got lucky. No long term problem on our part, we had our own Maxim: The bad guys had to be right every time, we only had to be right once. And that one time was when we took him off the playing board for several years, maybe even permanently. It was a game with potential consequences for both sides.

See you in a fortnight for Playing the Game: Part 2.


  1. This is an impressively winning article in all senses of the word, aces rather than snake eyes.

  2. Interesting piece- and useful!

  3. Great column, R.T. An insider's look (in more ways than one) at a fascinating subject.

  4. Two questions, RT, that I hope you'll address in future posts. One, to what extent and how often is the U/C's life in danger? And two, what are the rules about actually using drugs to maintain credibility with the criminals?

  5. Liz, great questions. The answer to the first one is, you don't really know until it goes bad, or it doesn't, but you always assumed the possibility and tried to stay aware of everything around you.
    Sometimes you find out later. 8 months out of the academy, I'm pulling surveillance from inside a Safeway store on what's to be the 3rd buy from a couple of amphetamine dealers in the parking lot. The dealers decide to rip off the 2 undercover agents for the buy money. Shooting ensues. I step out and join the party. We take them down. Later, a civilian informs me that a 3rd bad guy acting as back up stepped out of a car behind me with a shotgun, evidently decided he didn't like the odds and therefore vacated the scene. We never saw him, then or later.
    As for U/C's using drugs, the short answer is he better not, but the long answer is more interesting, so I'll add that to my topic list for a future blog. Thanks.

  6. Fantastic post, RT. I really love "straight from the horse's mouth" stuff like this.


  7. You excellent article gives me an image of how undercover dudes really do it, and will improve my reading of police procedurals and spy thrillers.

    What do the U/Cs do when the criminal or more likely his lawyer screams entrapment?

  8. Louis, good question. In short words, entrapment is when a person does something he would not normally do. Therefore it helps when the prosecution can show that the defendant has already been dealing drugs, this is not his first time at bat. Federal agents are trained in the elements of an entrapment defense, so they learn to involve the potential defendant in a conversation where the defendant discloses his knowledgable participation in the criminal act.
    Here's an easy entrapment situation. A dealer is paranoid of the U/C so he tells Larry a story like: "Larry, hold this locked briefcase. A man will come by and give you some money. You give him the briefcase. I don't want to see the man because he'll hit me up for a big favor and I don't want to do it. I'll give you fifty dollars for helping me out." Larry participates in no drug or price negotiations, merely gives the man the briefcase. The man turns out to be an U/C agent and busts Larry because the briefcase is full of drugs, but Larry didn't know what was inside. Yeah, Larry is stupid, but more than likely, he will get off on an entrapment defense, if he has a clean drug record.
    The ones I question are the movie situations where the female law enforcement agent sleeps with the criminal while she is on the job. Her testimony in court would quickly get messy and her professional reputation called into question. The defense could claim their client would not normally commit said crime, except that he was madly in love with her, potentially extenuating circumstances leading to an entrapment defense for the jury to decide. Might work, might not, juries are funny. However, this type of "entrapment defense" does not work in such cases as homicide because of the gravity of the crime.


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