Undercover Pressures

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Some criminal investigations resonate over the years. Even if you’ve only had peripheral involvement with them, as in my case, they still keep throwing up important implications that are difficult to ignore. A case in point is the investigation into the tragic murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common in 1992. Over twenty years later the implications still resonate of the ham-fisted attempt by the police to incriminate Colin Stagg in what became known as a ‘honey trap’ using a woman police officer, whose  nom de guerre was Lizzie James. 

Colin Stagg was fully exonerated and given a large pay-off in compensation, but Lizzie James was also a victim. The pressures of pretending to be sexually interested in Colin Stagg over many months, trying to draw him out into a confession of murder, that he had never committed, left its toll.  She was eventually awarded a six figures sum in recognition of the trauma she had suffered.

I was reminded of all this when Dr Raj Persaud asked me to join him in writing a blog about the psychological effects of working undercover, (now available at tinyurl.com/ajcfalg ). The topical reason for the blog is the news that five women and one man are suing the Metropolitan Police because of intimate relationships they claim they had with undercover officers.  The police officers apparently presented themselves as protestors to infiltrate activist groups, planning crimes, and had sex with the women. When this was revealed   subsequently the trial collapsed. But is it safe to assume that the disturbance an outrage was not limited to the people who are suing the police. Lizzie James’ experience, who never had sex with Colin Stagg, suggests that an emotional price is also paid by the police officers involved.

Many fictional accounts of working undercover suggest it is just one long adventure. That is a portrayal by actors, who live to act as if they are someone else. They never suffer the consequences.  Yet the pressure on deep, embedded undercover officers is illustrated by the experiences of Joseph D. Pistone who worked undercover for six years, infiltrating branches of the Mafia, portrayed in the film Donnie Brasco.  In his autobiography Pistone  claimed that he still travels disguised, under assumed names more than twenty years after he stopped working undercover and helped to convict 100 Mafia members. 

Pistone’s case is an extreme one, but it does show that there are severe psychological demands on undercover agents. It is for this reason that many law enforcement agencies around the world employ psychologists and counsellors to select, train, monitor and assist undercover officers.  It therefore was interesting to see whether there was any published research that threw light on the pressures of being undercover.  So, together Raj Persaud and I searched the academic literature.   

Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly all the studies we found were from the USA.  With their plethora of thousands of law enforcement agencies and the consequent variety of levels of competency, as well as the mixed jurisdictions, examination of the experiences of undercover investigations is more feasible.  These studies reveal that as many as one in four undercover agents have some sort of psychological disturbance.

As Gary Frakas showed some years ago the risk of psychological disturbance   increases the longer the operation goes on. This related to maintaining the false identity, the risk of growing sympathy to the criminal group, agent-supervisor relationship and strain on family and social relationships.  Michel Girodo also reported that the more undercover assignments federal agents undertook, the more drug, alcohol, and disciplinary problems they experienced.

The problems are not only due to the risks in being undercover but also to the role conflict in maintaining a position within the legitimate agency.  An FBI officer once told me the FBI used to have the policy of requiring undercover agents to come to meetings in their suits and behave as civilised, polite agents when the day, or night before they had been hanging out in jeans and t-shirts with violent criminals. The bureaucrats were just unaware the pressure this was putting on the undercover officers.

Of course, although we know most from US studies, these problems are not limited to Americans. Others have reported identity disturbances among secret agents of Mossad – the Israeli Secret Service. One agent infiltrating a group in Syria, became confused over his true name and identity after a few years in the role. I have similar reports from an investigator who joined a company to gain evidence on its fraudulent activity. She became friendly with the people in the company and actually felt sorry for them when she gave evidence against them. She also said that even after her involvement, on some days she couldn’t remember who she was supposed to be and got confused as to which work place to drive to.

In his recent book, the police psychologist Laurence Miller has pointed out that one of the reasons for this identity confusion is that to maintain the undercover persona the officer must model it on his own characteristics. This increases the risk that he cannot distinguish between the two. This accords with what one undercover police officer told me. He admitted the lifestyle he was able to live, funded by the tax payer, with an expensive apartment and car and money to spend freely in the style of a well established criminal, was really quite attractive.  There were obviously aspects of his personality that enjoyed the role he was playing.

It is worth mentioning, here, that I did discuss with a South African psychologist his role in managing undercover officers. He made it clear that it was crucial to both have very clear goals for the operation, knowing in advance what outcome would end it, and also a very clear time-frame for it. If the goals were not reached by the agreed time then the mission should be stopped.  It was these two aspects that went wrong, amongst others, in the attempt to incriminate Colin Stagg. They revealed the effects of mission creep because of the great deal of resource, financial, managerial and psychological that is put into an undercover operation. All involved are reluctant to call a halt if they think there is just a possibility of success, but that leads to groupthink and other well-known self-serving, confirmation bias processes that can be unproductive and harmful all round.

There is clearly a need to carefully select people who will go undercover.  These people need to be intelligent, although a study by Adrian Furnham suggests they should not be too intelligent. More importantly they need to be very confident of themselves and their abilities and not especially desirous of other social support. If they have good, stable relationships outside of the police that is probably helpful too, provided that relationship can tolerate the pressures from undercover work. But it is probably difficult to find and maintain such police officers in that situation. There are few prepared to make the commitment that Pistone did.


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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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connie stahlman

To Dave Cantor

You may be interested in a memoir written by a cop who was undercover for 10 years straight in Boston.

The Passage by Phillip M Vitti- a memoir of an undercover cop in Boston in the 60s
his email is philthepassage@yahoo.com

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