Friday, April 24, 2015

Write Away: U is for Undercover and Use of Force

I hope you are enjoying this month of terms that mystery and crime fiction writers might need for their stories. It’s hard to believe there are only a few letters left to uncover!

Undercover is a favorite staple of mystery and crime fiction writers. These operations are more likely to occur in police procedurals than in cozies, but being a cozy doesn’t obviate the possibility. Undercover operations are used to obtain insider information that is not possible to obtain through normal surveillance or questioning techniques.

The first undercover agents were used in France in 1811 by VidocQ. In England, Sir Robert Peel instituted a plainclothes unit in 1829. Though I have no evidence, I suggest it’s possible that the unofficial and sporadic use of officers as undercover agents predated these formalized units.

An undercover agent typically assumes a disguise of appearance or identity in order to gain the trust of suspects and/or their organization. From within the organization, the undercover agent gathers evidence and confidential information to build a case.

Undercover agents separate themselves from their normal lives and live within the structure they are observing. They can’t carry police credentials or an assigned service weapon. The undercover agent has a handler for communicating needs and concerns during the operation. Hiding that contact adds additional stress. Living in the criminal world also creates opportunities to engage in illegal activities. Any of those must be approved in advance (like a planned bank robbery) as necessary to maintain the undercover agent’s identity and gather data.

However, police officers can NEVER use drugs (for a raft of reasons), and that is one way you see fiction writers revealing the undercover officer as a plant. It is a myth that the agent must admit to being a police officer if asked by suspects outright. Some undercover agents play on the myth by saying, “Nah. I’m not a cop and, you’re right. If I were, I’d have to tell you.”

Undercover carries with it a cachet of danger. Why else hide in plain sight within a possible criminal group? People who study these things say there are two main dangers: keeping the undercover identity secure and going back to real life after the operation ends.

An FBI agent told us in a session that it is very difficult to reintegrate. Many officers enjoy the thrill of being undercover and find normal police work not nearly so stimulating. Some officer’s marriages break up. Some turn to alcohol or drugs. It is hard to switch off an identity that you worked hard to develop and maintain. When one has been so secretive, it’s hard to open up and share again. Being an undercover agent is generally recognized as being one of the most stressful positions to engage in.

Whereas local undercover operations typically last no more than a few months, federal operations might last years. On the Internet, there are lots of stories on being an undercover agent. Reading them could give you a feel for the life if you are writing those scenes in your book.

The Use of Force by a law enforcement officer involves physical restraint to get control of a situation or an out-of-control person. Generally speaking, use of force is “the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject” (as defined by International Association of the Chiefs of Police, Police Use of Force in America, 2001). But a 1999 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that of 44 million police contacts, less than one-half percent resulted in use of force. But the ones that make the news make use of force sound endemic. And those darn TV shows …

How much force to use and when to use force is left to department training. One can imagine the inconsistencies with that approach, but defining specific guidelines is tricky.

With the “split second syndrome”, even officers who don’t normally use force might, under pressure, resort to it in specific, high-tension situations. The National Institute of Justice LINK
recognizes that since situations vary, it is difficult to come up with a uniform set of guidelines. They also recognize that the use of excessive force is sometimes “difficult to estimate”.

As you know from listening to the news and reading periodicals, that definition is often called into dispute in situations requiring use of force. Thus, the call for body cams on officers to document situations is on the rise. This strategy is intended to protect all parties, because just as some officers use too much force, so do some suspects unjustly cry excessive use of force.

Interestingly, officers with some college education are less likely to use force. Whereas the amount of experience the officer has shows inconsistencies among studies as to the effect on use of force. Studies find neither age, gender, race, class or other demographics is a factor in use of force.

The kinds of use of force are:
1)   Presence of an officer (as a brake on activity)
2)   Verbally commanding a subject to comply
3)   Empty hand control to search, disarm, or control the suspect
4)   Intermediate weapon use includes electronic, impact, or other non-lethal weapons
5)   Deadly force is using force that can result in death or permanent injury

It is incumbent upon a professional mystery or crime writer to properly depict activities in the performance of an officer’s duties.

Mort sets Frieda straight in "The List".
            Uh, yes, I would.,” Mort responded. “Haven’t you been listening?” There was a long pause before Mort lifted his head. “Yes, Frieda or Fran or whoever the hell you are. I would be better off without you. In fact, I’ve really been ‘without you’ for a lot of years. I just want to make it official.”
            Frieda stared at him, appalled at the implications. She narrowed her eyes. “I’ll sue you for every penny you have or will ever make,” she spat out venomously. “I’ll sue you for ruining my professional career. Who would take advice from a woman who can’t hang onto her own husband? You can’t do this to me, Mort! I won’t let you ruin me!”
            “Do whatever you have to do, Frieda,” Mort muttered, leaning wearily into the lounge seat beneath him. “Whatever.” He opened his eyes, swung his feet to the side, and lifted his body from the chair.


  1. Hi there - I've seen some shows where the 'plant' is figured out. It's usually not pretty.
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal - Impartial, Straighforward Fiction Book Reviews

  2. Right, Diane. The bad guys don't take well to being tricked. I cannot even imagine me doing uncover--not for me! But I am grateful some are willing.

  3. I knew a officer that was working undercover. It was so odd, I had to pretend I didn't know him, and even act as if I wouldn't be around him... (It was a little easier, since he looked like he was a really scuzzy Biker Dude.) I am really enjoying your serial story, too!


    1. That must have been an odd experience for you, Cat. Can you use it somehow in a book? Your first hand knowledge would be a real benefit. Thanks for enjoying the story, too! Writers like feedback!

  4. Fascinating to learn that the first official undercover agents were used in France in 1811--I'd guess that you're speculation that there were less formal uses before that.

    Re: use of force, it's going to be very interesting going forward to see what kind of impact those body cams have.

    1. Hi, Kern--Thanks for stopping in to read and comment. This has been a very fun series to work on. I've learned a lot! I agree the body cams phase could move us forward or create new difficulties. I am eager to follow the progress.

  5. Just stopped by on my tour of A to Z blogs. Not undercover, completely open! Well-researched post. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for coming by and taking time to comment. I've had fun finding out stuff that I think my readers would like to know. I'd love to visit your posts, too. Please share your link.