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Undercover operations


Undercover operations are the third special investigative tool included in the Organized Crime Convention. Undercover operations occur where investigators infiltrate criminal networks or pose as offenders to uncover organized crime activity. These operations occur in many countries with different types of oversight. Major issues faced by jurisdictions are listed below:

  • In what kind of cases and in which format are undercover operations allowed?
  • Are there limits on the type of undercover operations permitted?
  • What are the preconditions for conducting undercover operations?
  • Is authorization from a judicial or other independent source required?
  • Are there guidelines for the appropriate use of undercover officers?

In most jurisdictions, undercover officers are not permitted to encourage suspects to commit crimes they would not ordinarily commit, either as an agent provocateur or through entrapment (i.e. a situation in which an agent or official originated the idea of the crime and induced the accused to engage in it; in some jurisdictions, it is used as a defence to criminal charges). Their role is usually to become part of an existing criminal enterprise. Jurisdictions vary in the nature of the restrictions they place on undercover operations, with most focusing solely on prohibiting undercover agents from providing opportunities to commit crime, and committing crimes themselves.

Undercover investigations are used less often than is commonly believed, due to the extended length of time required to gain access to criminal organizations, and the danger to the undercover officer if his or her identity is discovered (Kowalczyk and Sharps, 2017; Schmidt, 2009). Nevertheless, there have been many significant cases developed by undercover agents whose work resulted in numerous convictions, while managing to maintain their undercover identity without being discovered (Cowan and Century, 2003; Garcia and Levin, 2009; Pistone, 1989; Wansley with Stowers, 1989).

The dangers of undercover operations

The danger to undercover agents is apparent, as they are the last to know when their cover is blown, making serious injury or death difficult to foresee. In New York City, nearly 200 undercover officers (two-thirds of New York's entire undercover force) were transferred to less dangerous duty, following the killings of two undercover detectives and complaints regarding danger, outmoded equipment, and inadequate backup for officers involved in undercover operations. This demonstrates that the danger to uncover officers lies in their uncertain status in the eyes of both criminals and other police (McPhee, 2003; Schmidt, 2009).

One of the risks that was highlighted by a study on this topic is that agents selected for undercover assignments tend to be newly recruited and inexperienced officers, and that supervision of these agents in the field might not be adequate. Interviews with undercover agents show that these agents are sometimes exposed to great danger without adequate briefing or preparation. The effectiveness and consequences of undercover operations require systematic evaluation. In this way, their costs - in other words the time invested, risk to officers and financial cost - can be assessed against their impact on organized crime operations (Love, Vinson, Tolsma, Kaufmann, 2008; Marx, 1982; Miller, 1987).

Sting operations are deceptive law enforcement operations designed to catch a person committing a crime. They involve more officers, and they are generally long-term and expensive investigations. They involve deceptive "fronts" for criminal activity such as a stolen property dealer, arms dealer, or money launderer designed to catch those committing crimes. Sting operations are usually designed to infiltrate criminal markets, but these require multiple undercover officers over an extended period of time. A successful sting operation can disrupt an entire criminal market.


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