OBSERVATIONS ON POLICE UNDERCOVER WORK*

Authors


  • *

    An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1983 annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology. Support for this paper was provided in part by Grant MH15 123 from the National Institute of Mental Health. A number of people made helpful comments on earlier drafts: Kai T. Erikson, Virginia H. Fallon, Robert P. Gandossy, Gary T. Marx, Diane L. Pike, Albert J. Reiss, Jr., David V. Summers, Diane Vaughan, Jay R. Williams, and Paul Root Wolpe. Helpful comments were also provided by several anonymous reviewers.

  • George I. Miller is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, Yale University. He is employed by the Municipal Police Training Council, State of Connecticut. His research interests include factors affecting careers and attrition in police work.

Abstract

Law enforcement officers are dependent upon citizens to alert them to criminal violations of the law. When citizens do not willingly communicate information to the police or cannot be induced to do so, police officers themselves adopt fictitious identities of various types. This paper explores police undercover work, a form of covert law enforcement used to gather information about conduct external to the organization. Through interviews with supervisors and practitioners, the benefits and liabilities of the assignment for the officers and the organization are presented. The work enables the police to investigate citizens who are not suspected of criminal activity and therefore lends itself to abuse. The practice itself demands attention as the lack of operational guidelines, standardless selection of operatives, and loose supervision imperil the safety of officers and the rights of citizens.

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