The Risks of Undercover Assignments

Undercover assignments can be very dangerous for law enforcement officers. They often involve long periods away from their normal police jobs and remove them from supervision, leaving them susceptible to a variety of risks.


Policies should include substantive limits on undercover operations and a requirement that they be authorized by an Assistant Special Agent in Charge (SAC). Agents should also be instructed to avoid acts of entrapment.

Intelligence Gathering

Intelligence gathered by undercover agents is critical to criminal investigations. It can provide law enforcement officers with information about suspected criminal activity, including patterns of behavior and where to find suspects. Without such intelligence, many crimes might go unsolved. Undercover officers gather information in a variety of ways, such as infiltrating organized crime groups, monitoring phone calls or intercepting emails.

Undercover officers must be able to maintain their cover at all times, which is challenging for a number of reasons. For example, they are the last to know when their cover has been blown and must therefore be able to react quickly to avoid being exposed. They also face danger from criminals who may assume they are a police officer and are thus a threat to the group they’re infiltrating, as well as other police officers who could expose them if their identities are discovered.

The intelligence process involves four distinct stages: collection, processing, analysis and dissemination. For example, when an undercover agent follows a suspect over a month-long stakeout, he collects a massive amount of information about his activities and interactions with other people. The next stage is analyzing that information to determine its significance and present it to decision makers. For instance, he may determine that the suspect plans to sell drugs to a child or use his position as an aide to a politician in order to gain access to classified documents.

Illegal Drugs

An undercover agent is often tasked with investigating illicit drug activities. They might be tipped off by a colleague or a informant that an illegal drug dealer is in the area. They then use their skills to find the dealer and arrange a deal. During the transaction, the undercover officer will usually have a microphone or hidden camera to record the exchange.

The most famous undercover agent was Joe Pistone, who went deep inside the Mob to work with FBI colleagues on a number of organized crime cases. His six-year stint as “Donnie Brasco” led to the conviction of 100 mobsters. In one undercover operation, he posed as a Sicilian-American to infiltrate the Bonanno crime family and gain their trust.

Other undercover agents have targeted vendors selling child pornography and research chemicals online. In another case, an undercover agent bought a large quantity of 4-fluoroamphetamine and other drugs from a Darknet seller using aliases. HSI special agents later used the same technique to target money launderers on the platform.

An undercover agent can’t encourage someone to commit an offence and must have a good reason for working with an individual. Otherwise, the FBI could be accused of entrapment. Typically, a field office’s Undercover Coordinator is on hand to evaluate proposals and make sure the agent is familiar with all policies on this topic.


The use of undercover agents can be critical to successful investigations of white collar crimes such as fraud, bribery, money laundering, and securities violations. But such work poses risks to undercover officers’ safety, and it raises questions about the legitimacy of an investigation if law enforcement is seen as a participant in the crime.

Undercover work is particularly critical in investigating high-priority criminal activity such as public corruption, organized crime, and offenses involving controlled substances. Such investigations typically require undercover agents to infiltrate and become a part of a criminal organization or network. Undercover officers can also be employed to encourage suspects to commit crimes, either by “agent provocateur” tactics or through entrapment. Jurisdictions vary in their restrictions on this kind of entrapment, with most prohibiting agents from encouraging or inducing criminal behavior unless it is justified as a matter of law.

The Guidelines provide that an undercover employee may participate in otherwise illegal activities only if the participation is justified: (a) to protect others from serious injury or death; or (b) to prevent property loss, theft, or other damage. The Guidelines require the Supervisory Agent in Charge to review such cases involving undercover employees and provide written approval of any proposed participation under these circumstances. In our inspection, USOU reported that some field offices have a tendency to delegate this responsibility to assistant special agents.

Corporate Investigations

Corporate investigations are conducted to ensure that a business operates within the law and avoids internal theft. These investigations can uncover if a business partner is legitimate or if an employee is stealing from the company. They can also reveal sabotage, safety violations, operational discrepancies, racial and sexual harassment and fraud. Investigators may work undercover to examine these issues.

Undercover investigators are used by police agencies and corporations to study their operations, identify problems and prevent crimes that can drain a corporation’s resources and profits. Using surveillance, interviews and forensic analysis, the undercover investigator can discover what is happening behind the scenes and provide management with the necessary information to correct issues.

This type of investigation is particularly useful in situations involving organised crime groups. For example, infiltrators such as Joe Pistone have helped to bring about numerous convictions of Mafia members in New York. This type of investigation can be highly effective, but it must be carefully planned to minimize the risk of harming third parties and triggering negative reactions from community leaders.

The decision of whether to conduct a covert investigation should be weighed against the costs of an overt one, including the cost of manpower, the amount of time invested and the potential risks to officers, the officer’s safety and that of any affected third parties. It should also be compared to the benefits of the operation in terms of convictions and the prevention of economic losses.