What Does It Feel Like to be an Undercover Cop?

Bags filled with cocaine.

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This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Bob Cooke, retired special agent, California Dept of Justice, Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement:

I’d have to describe working undercover as the most thrilling job I’ve ever had. Sometimes, it was also the most boring: long hours; days, weeks, or months of surveillance. Most police officers never get to work undercover during their careers. It just isn’t suited for everyone who wears the police uniform. A lot of great cops enjoy working in uniform or other investigations. I appreciate them for what they do. Those are vitally important roles that require other skill-sets

When I was first selected to work undercover, I had to buy an entire new wardrobe. I looked, acted, walked, and talked like a cop pretty much since the time I was 16 and became a police cadet. I identified with cops and the style of clothing they wore both on-duty and off-duty. I had never used any drugs as a civilian or when I was in school. Pretty much I was as “straight arrow” as they came.

I was picked because I arrested hundreds of “dope fiends” (old term used to describe heroin addicts) and PCP users. My arrest stats looked good, and I was an aggressive pursuer of the suppliers in the drug and violence trade.

I was used to walking into a room, and when people looked at me, they knew I was a cop, whether on-duty or off-duty. I had to change my perception in order to blend in and work undercover. I needed self confidence for the role of an undercover cop (UC). That meant wearing clothes and a hair style that was more contemporary. I did what a lot of young “narcs” did. I let my hair and beard grow out so that I wouldn’t look so much like a cop.

After a while, I realized that it didn’t matter about the facial hair and longer hair. What mattered was how I could get close to someone involved in illegal activities. Usually that was accomplished with the assistance of a confidential informant (CI). Informants are either working for money or because they have a case pending against them and they want to mitigate their sentence. CIs will either purchase drugs or guns for you or they will introduce an undercover (UC) officer/agent to the drug or firearms dealer. It is best to have the UC make the buys or the CI will have to testify in open court.

I remember the first time a CI took me to buy some crank (methamphetamine powder). My cover team consisted of one person following us to another town. I wasn’t aware that my partner lost sight of me within five minutes or that the body wire wasn’t transmitting. We didn’t have cell phones back then. I drove the CI to the address, but we were met by a brother of the guy I was supposed to meet. The small-time dealer thought he recognized me and even knew my true name, my personal vehicle, and my wife’s name. But he still did the deal. The next day, I discovered that another agency was investigating this dealer’s family for a bombing that had just occurred at a car dealership. His brothers lived in the same house where I met him.

Team work was the biggest element I learned as working undercover. I worked as a UC for more than 20 years. Having a dependable team was imperative. One time, early in my career, I was in a hotel room with armed suspects negotiating a two-kilo cocaine deal. I told them I would not be outnumbered, and that two of them would have to wait in an adjacent bar. The remaining suspect trusted me enough that he showed me his gun. He showed me the two kilos (roughly 4.5 pounds) and my heart pounded for a number of reasons:  No. 1,  we didn’t intend to pay them loose the money for these drugs; No. 2, I had moved to another hotel room and didn’t know if my surveillance team knew where I was; and No. 3, I wasn’t even sure that my body transmitter was functioning. Right after I saw the two kilos, I told the suspect that the cash was in my car and I was going to go and retrieve it. I instructed him to wait there and I’d return with $78,000. Cocaine was very expensive back then.

When I walked out to my car, I gave one of my arrest team members the “bust signal” and asked for the bag that was supposed to contain the cash. He told me to take a bag from the trunk. I grabbed the bag and walked back to the hotel room. I couldn’t tell if my team was near or not. My heart was pounding and my adrenaline was amped up. When I knocked on the door, the suspect opened it, and I ran forward and knocked him down yelling “Police! Expletive expletive.” My arrest team was right there on my heels. Everything went fine and we arrested everyone involved that afternoon. Good thing, because I grabbed the wrong bag. I had my partner’s personal bag that had his duty gun, gun belt, bullet proof vest, and handcuffs. No, he wasn’t very prepared.

Times changed, and we stopped doing business like that as we learned those operations were costing the lives of good men and women everywhere. We learned safer ways of conducting take-downs and arrests. A UC should not be placed in any more danger that can be managed. Over the years, I was lucky enough to survive other violent situations where I was held at gun and knife point. We manage the risks by employing better tactics and policies.

As I spent more time working as a UC, I conducted undercover operations and “sold” chemicals used in the manufacturing of methamphetamine, in one case, enough to cook 35 to 40 pounds. We never actually allowed the process to finish in order to keep more drugs from hitting the streets. The safe take-downs for these cases were complex in nature and involved multiple agencies including the local police, sheriffs, DEA, and our state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.

One of my first partners from the early ‘80s was a great investigator and worked awesomely as a UC. One day, he came to work and said he was leaving to go back to his former agency and wear a uniform again. I asked why. We were great friends and worked hand in glove on scores of undercover cases. He said, “I have to. I don’t get scared anymore.”

While undercover, one must learn to conceal fear, anxiety, anticipation and channel the adrenaline. I’m proud of what we accomplished. I’m fortunate to be here and be able to tell my stories. But lot of great men and women died enforcing this state and country’s drug laws. We will never forget their sacrifice.

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