This month's Tactics column takes a twist from the usual street tactics that trainers should cover with their students and addresses an area that doesn't usually get much attention in professional journals: undercover (UC) tactics.
In southwest Florida, an under cover narcotics investigator was recently shot by a uniformed police officer, garnering national press coverage. Time and space won't allow me to focus on the factors that led to this particular shooting, but I do want to delve into UC tactics in general.
Most Law Officer readers know that I spent a fair amount of my 20+ year career in upstate New York working undercover narcotics. In fact, the photo on p. 28 is the official photograph of yours truly that my agency kept in the Narcotics Unit files. It was required as part of the documentation for all undercover vice cops, along with our assumed undercover street names and accompanying New York State driver's license.
So why don't we start there: your name.
Prior to beginning my tour of duty in the Narcotics Unit, I was sent to the Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Narcotics Officer Training School. It was during that residency in Albany, N.Y., that we "baby narcs" were taught the importance of having credible aliases.
Although adopting the handle "Vito Narconi" as your UC alias might sound funny and get a few laughs, it may cause more than a few problems when you inadvertently bump into someone you know (either on or off the job) in public. FBI Special Agent Joe Pistone, made famous in the Donnie Brasco movie that starred Al Pacino and Johnny Depp (which was based on Joe's book), learned the hard way that adopting an entirely different first and last name isn't always the way to go. Someone recognized him as Joe Pistone and addressed him by his real first name one day.
The DEA recommends that you keep your real first name in the event you're ever greeted by someone on the street who doesn't know you're "on the job." Your real date of birth is also a good idea to hold onto; in the event you have to rattle it off, you won't have to spend that extra few seconds thinking about it. Our phony New York State driver's licenses had our real dates of birth and our UC aliases, and without exception, every narc in the squad used their real first names in their aliases. "Dave Graziano" was born that day, but his date of birth was actually 25 years earlier.
Another UC issue: whether you're going to "carry." It may be a matter of personal preference or it might be an issue that your agency formally addresses. During my half-dozen or so drug task force stints, we all carried handguns as a general rule, although there were several times I couldn't because of the nature of the assignment.
During those years, my gun of choice was a Titan .25 caliber semiautomatic. I would have preferred a full-size or even a compact Smith and Wesson Model 59 or 39 (the most popular 9-mm semiautomatic police pistol back then), but it looked too much like a cop gun. Why the .25 caliber? It was inexpensive, easy to hide, could never be mistaken for a police gun and the center-fire round had a little more punch than the rim-fire .22 caliber that one of my partners carried. If found, as it was one time, it fit in well with my assumed identity as a biker-type criminal.
Some assignments prevent carrying due to their very nature. Toward the latter part of my undercover stint, I was detached to the N.Y. State Narcotics Bureau and was assigned to investigate physicians who were selling narcotics and/or prescriptions for controlled substances. A few of these doctors were not beyond asking their patients to disrobe or at least take off their shirts, presumably to run a stethoscope over their lungs. In reality, I learned it was to look for a wire, a recorder or a gun hidden on those "new patients" who they suspected were police officers or state narc agents. In those cases, even a discreet ankle holster might have been discovered had I been asked to jump up and have a seat on the examination table.
The general rule of thumb on duty guns for UC assignments: carry, but not something that would be instantly recognizable as a police duty pistol if discovered. Also, make sure you head out to the range and run through a qualification course with that weapon, and record the make, model, caliber and serial number with the firearms/range staff.
What Not to Wear
The clothes you choose really depend on what type of assignment you're on. But use your head. If you're supposed to be a strung-out street junkie, you may want to forego the $100 Tommy Hilfiger designer jeans and opt for a pair of well-worn Wranglers or Levis or better yet, shop at a thrift store. Same goes for your shoes, shirts and jackets.
The biker colors I wore one summer (a denim vest with the usual accoutrements 1%-er patch and New York "lower rocker" on the back) had a small pistol pocket sewn inside, courtesy of our uniform outfitter, but for authenticity purposes, it went through the usual "initiation rite" by my fellow narcs. I'll skip the specific details, but I'm sure you get the picture.
The goal is to fit in with your target group. If you're trying to penetrate the glitter crowd who spend their weekends snorting fine Peruvian flake, you're probably going to blow a good portion of your uniform clothing allowance on shirts, trousers, jackets and other clothing accessories. Most of my squad had pierced ears because it was a staple of the culture we were working in. In fact, my partner and I pierced our own ears; it saved on earring costs two narcs, one pair of earrings. A few of the squad members had temporary gold or silver caps on their teeth, too.
The bottom line: If you're going to penetrate the upper echelon of society and score designer drugs from the jet-set crowd, your UC persona may require some out-of-pocket expenses.
Remember: In the event something goes wrong and you have to quickly identify yourself to the "unis" in an emergency, the "color of the day" is going to be important. If the color of the day is a rule in your agency, make sure it is plainly visible. For those not familiar with that term, it applies to a color (or a word) used to identify yourself as a police officer to uniform cops who may challenge you during a street encounter.
In the years since my retirement, I have often thought and spoken fondly of retired Deputy Police Chief Frank Dovidio. During my time as a street narc, he was the detective supervisor of my unit. Always conscious of our long hours that sometimes morphed into what seemed like 36-hour days and nine-day weeks, he was the ever-present eye, keeping watch over his team of tigers. Whenever he sensed that we were pulling the wires too tight, he'd make sure we took some lost time away from the squad room for a long weekend.
To most narcs, the attraction of the street can be overwhelming, even addicting. A conscientious, competent and dedicated narcotics supervisor is sometimes even more important than the funding, the equipment, the snitches or everything else that goes into making an operation a success. The lure of making the big buy and turning that buy into an even larger one or flipping a guppy into a whale can be incredibly strong.
If you're a boss (or thinking about taking over a street narc team) make sure you have plenty of resources at your disposal, not just physicians, pharmacists, therapists and counselors, but high-ranking admin-types who can cut through the red tape and make "days off" happen. That's especially important if the ops plan calls for a long-term assignment or your people are working deep cover where their homes are really safe houses for months at a time.
Backups: Both Kinds
There are two kinds of backups in UC ops: one is optional, the other is not. Backup guns are an option. But think about it for a minute. How many street skells carry two guns? If you can get away with carrying a backup weapon and keep your UC identity intact, by all means, go for it! The other backup, your partner, is not an option. Nobody works totally alone. You may have night dreams of being "The Lone Ranger," but that's a foolish game to play, and no credible vice/narcotics super visor is ever going to allow it. Even Kemosabe had Tonto.
I know all too well that a lot of buys must be made alone; I've made my share. But my partner was always within eye- or earshot, via a wire or through direct eye contact. If I had a buck for every late night "beeper" call from a snitch that had a "sure thing" set up and another buck every time I disturbed my partner during our off time, I'd be living in Tahiti now. Right after I returned the page to the snitch (and asked him if he knew what the hell time it was), the very next call was to my partner.
When I was working for the state narcs infiltrating the medical profession, I had to go into the examination room by myself. Wires and Nagra body recorders were out. But that other smelly, sorry-looking strung-out junkie sitting in the corner chair of the doctor's waiting room who appeared to be "on the nod" was my trusty partner, ready to bust the door down at my call had the doc and his male nurse (read: body guard) decided that an extra-large dose of Dilaudid or Demerol needed to be administered to yours truly.
Speaking of wires, if you can get away with them, use them. Body recorders are great for preserving evidence, but they won't do squat for your butt if the defecation hits the ventilator during a hand-to-hand exchange. For that you'll want and need a high-quality wire. The old quasi-reliable Kel-Kits I used during my narc days are things of the past. Most modern RF body transmitters are very reliable, super small and very discreet, and most of them can cover a lot more distance than the devices my task force buds and I used.
Remember Who You Are
Last, remember who and what you are. Although I realize that I risk ticking off a few officers with this next paragraph, it must be said. Nothing is worth compromising your integrity as a police officer. Whether it's sleeping with a snitch or taste-testing the stash, you're committing a crime, destroying your own credibility and damaging your profession not to mention risking your life.
The task force I worked for had the luxury of not only a great boss in Frank Dovidio, but also great resources. Our police surgeon would give us phony track marks on the inside of our forearms to bolster our cover as junkies. We also had "beat bags" of placebos (caffeine inside Black Beauty or Biphetamine-12 capsules, or plain milk sugar stuffed inside empty Seconal or Nembutal capsules) made up by a registered pharmacist (after securing Department of Health approval) in the event we were placed into situations where we had to use when we were looking to buy. Deceit and trickery were common when we were forced to test coke or smack.
I was lucky that every member of our drug task force team was handpicked by the agency. Most were experienced narcs, and everyone was thoroughly vetted by our task force commander before being allowed to work. I never saw one of my teammates use anything illegal or taint his reputation by bedding down a female snitch or target or help himself to a sample of the buy. And we had tremendous scores: "white cross" methamphetamine in excess of 25,000 hits, powdered coke by the ounce, smack by the bundle and pounds of marijuana. Other neighboring narcotics units that didn't spend as much time in their selection or training process weren't as lucky. It's easy to get trapped in the fast-and-easy street culture or living la vida loca, but you must stay focused and remember who and what you are.
It Starts in the Classroom
This short primer on working undercover is not to be construed as training. If UC narc duties are in any of your futures, don't even consider undertaking that assignment until you've attended a legitimate UC school. The DoJ's DEA Narcotics Investigators Training School is one of the best around. So is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Investigators School. The curriculum covers pharmacology, surveillance (physical and electronic), field testing, buy/bust procedures, controlled buys, cultivating informants, search warrant applications, etc.
You might want to think about augmenting these formal courses with other seminars or classes offered by agencies in your area, as well as some on-the-job training shadowing an experienced narc. Although nothing beats the experience of working the street with a competent, honest veteran narcotics cop as a trainer, the material and curriculum covered in the DEA's Narcotics Investigators School is a must. The creds will also help when it comes time to qualify yourself on the stand at trial when you have to testify in court or before a grand jury.
Until next time, stay safe.