"How do I know you're not a cop?"
November 4, 2009 8:08 AM   Subscribe

How do criminals convince other criminals they aren't (undercover) police?
posted by stinkycheese to Law & Government (35 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Time, rep and cred.
posted by watercarrier at 8:10 AM on November 4, 2009

The same way undercover police convince criminals they are not undercover police...shared experiences, building trust, shared identity, mutual associates who can vouch for them, etc.?
posted by dubitable at 8:10 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As a follow-up, I guess this would vary by country or region, but is there anything a criminal can do that would 'prove' they were not police? For example, I have heard of undercover police going so far as to shoot heroin or commit murder in order to stay undercover, but I have no idea just how realistic that is or how common such extreme measures might be.
posted by stinkycheese at 8:18 AM on November 4, 2009

In my experience, the most common and informal way is by doing illegal activities together, particularly drugs. Maybe it's just a street myth, but most low level criminals are cool with someone who will do illegal drugs in their presence. Smoke herb, snort some coke, etc.
posted by Liver at 8:18 AM on November 4, 2009

I have to disagree with Liver - using is not enough. Narcs are notorious for doing that and then busting their homies. Whatever. You have to give it time. Build up trust through common friends, let time do its thing and make sure that if you've done something, the word gets out to the right people. Just saying...
posted by watercarrier at 8:26 AM on November 4, 2009

Personal recommendations from a trusted source.

Since trusted sources often get compromised by the police, this really isn't that effective, but that's why undercover policework works. Criminals don't have a good way of identifying police.
posted by smackfu at 8:26 AM on November 4, 2009

They consult Who's a Rat, for one.
posted by Setec Astronomy at 8:28 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a pretty good first-hand story I heard recently on this subject.
posted by something something at 8:44 AM on November 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Note that the vast majority of situations are not of the "Miami Vice" type, where a Crockett or Tubbs poses as a high-level drug lord. Confidential Informants (civilians) give information, a low to mid-level criminal is caught and turns informant on the higher-ups.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:50 AM on November 4, 2009

It's pretty much the "time, rep and cred" formula above. Who do you know? Who can vouch for you?

I have a cousin who worked as a narcotics officer for a while but he had to hang it up because he was getting older and no one in the local prison system had ever heard of him so he was not as believable.

(And by "him", I mean his assumed identity.)

The assumption was that if you are in that game long enough, you will get caught eventually and have to do time. A mature, late-thirties/early-forties man without any prison connections, tattoos or gang affiliations was highly suspect.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:54 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: From something something's link:

Leatherwood, paid roughly $45,000 a year, was given a different Social Security number and junkies' clothes. She roamed the streets of Memphis in the same foul-smelling shirt. She didn't shower, brush her teeth or shave her legs. She stood outside neighborhood corner stores, smoking, befriending crack addicts so they'd take her to their dealers...

Leatherwood's training taught her how to buy crack cocaine but not use it, a tricky game to play with dealers. But she never used. Not once. She passed every drug test the department gave her.

Interesting stuff, thanks. And I should have known in 2009 there'd be a website outing 'rats'.
posted by stinkycheese at 8:55 AM on November 4, 2009

The mafia and a few biker gangs require new recruits to kill someone (on behalf of the gang) in order to become a full patch / mafioso.
posted by Jairus at 9:13 AM on November 4, 2009

Firstly, most undercover cops don't go in as a Donnie Brasco type character.

It's much easier to go in as either a supplier or a buyer. In either case, the undercover cop has something to offer that is rare and interesting (a cheaper/better version of a service or product / a load of cash) - the trick is to have enough of a cover story to foil a decent bit of due diligence on the criminal's part and push the right buttons at the right time. A cover story isn't necessarily that hard - it's a big world, and high level crime necessarily involves stepping outside of one's direct field of influence (and vision).

Decent criminals, by which I mean the ones that aren't relegated to the job of physical violence - tend to work their way up the rungs by being smarter, more political and more manipulative. Put basically, they read people better.

The trick is to pace the approach and development of the relationship correctly and gradually adjust the power balance so that the criminal needs you (or something off you). At the same time, it helps to destabilize the criminal in some way so that a) they are more desperate and b) their attention is elsewhere.

This will all be aimed at something - a sting, or turning the person into an informant by revealing the amount of compromising information, or the offer of cash. In other words, the officer uses whatever vulnerabilities he/she can find to create a need and provide a solution. Sales, basically. Different product, but at base it's sales.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:13 AM on November 4, 2009

Diego Gambetta has a new book, Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, which may provide some insights here. A review from the linked page:
"Criminals are in constant fear of being duped, says Diego Gambetta, even as they are busy duping others. Yet hoodlums often seek a literal partner in crime. This, he notes, creates a need for both identification and verification of trust in what is generally an untrustworthy milieu. Lacking a miscreants' yellow page, the question becomes, well, how to find an honest crook? Such concerns pervade Codes of the Underworld, a new book by Gambetta, a professor of sociology at the University of Oxford."--Nina Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education
posted by mhum at 9:17 AM on November 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

I came here to recommend Gambetta's book.
posted by proj at 9:29 AM on November 4, 2009

On "Cops" (ugh) I saw an alleged prostitute ask a driver "You're not a cop are you?" The cop said "Does this look like a cop car?" [you might need some context here: it didn't]. The alleged prostitute figured that was proof enough. Turns out it wasn't.

I guess what I'm saying is I don't think there is a universal way to accomplish this.

(I wonder why she thought the camera crew was there...)
posted by fritley at 9:31 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

fritley, that's interesting. I always thought that (perhaps an urban legend) cops weren't allowed to lie when asked directly, so he would have said to say yes. Or not. What do I know.
posted by Melismata at 9:35 AM on November 4, 2009

I always thought that (perhaps an urban legend) cops weren't allowed to lie when asked directly, so he would have said to say yes. Or not. What do I know.

Totally untrue. The very existence of undercover work is predicated on a fundamental deceit!
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:37 AM on November 4, 2009

watercarrier is free to disagree with the logic of the criminal in my above answer, but as I said, in my experience a low level drug dealer is way more comfortable meeting a new person, and smoking with them than meeting a new person and who refuses to partake. This isn't something I've seen on TV, it's something I've seen real live people do, more times than I could count. I'm just answering the question.
posted by Liver at 9:49 AM on November 4, 2009

On "Cops" (ugh) I saw an alleged prostitute ask a driver "You're not a cop are you?" The cop said "Does this look like a cop car?" [you might need some context here: it didn't]. The alleged prostitute figured that was proof enough. Turns out it wasn't.

I guess what I'm saying is I don't think there is a universal way to accomplish this.

Like a lot of mistakes, I suspect that when caught, the criminals were ignoring red flags, usually in pursuit of profit. They get greedy and take a chance they shouldn't have.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:04 AM on November 4, 2009

often doing or seeming to do illegal things for or with the criminals generally helps.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:13 AM on November 4, 2009

Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia covers this in great detail in the first (fascinating!) half of the book. Basically, "Donnie" creates a few fake contacts to back him up, eats where his targets eat, knows guys they know and doesn't act too interested in anything beyond his supposed area (jewel theif). He becomes "known" in the same way the Mafia would refer to a good crook as a "Wise Guy" or "one of us". That is the vetting process as described for the minor players in the East Coast Mafia in the 1970s, but in Donnie Brasco's case it took about 6 months to get there.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:16 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

They consult Who's a Rat, for one.

Note: This is apparently NSFW. My business does not block 99.99999999% of the sites I visit, but something about this site is so offensive that they made an exception.

But now I'm doubly eager to visit once I get home.
posted by spamguy at 10:18 AM on November 4, 2009

Radio Scotland recently aired a program called A Double Life in which a former undercover cop interviews other former undercover cops. (You can listen to the second episode here.)

In the first episode the double life was set up by:
1.) "Danny" starts hanging around in bars swapping jokes.
2.) Danny announces he has lost his job and is looking for another
3.) Danny takes crap job
4.) Danny asks around to see who might sell him some dope
5.) The police department buys several cartons of sweatshirts with (I thought he said) Pringles logo. Danny flogs them around town as shirts he has stolen from a van. He becomes the Pringles shirt guy.
6) The pringles guy broadens his horizens by buying and selling dope.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:36 AM on November 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

In New Zealand, undercover cops smoke dope. In court, when their testimony has been challenged ("weren't you stoned at the time, Officer X?") the standard response is that they "simulated smoking." However, there have been several cases of formed undercover cops suing the police or going to the news media claiming their lives have been ruined by drug habits they only developed as part of their work.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:49 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Regarding lying to the question of "are you a cop," the constitution doesn't require that cops always tell the truth. What you're probably thinking of is entrapment, where your defense is that the cop got you to commit the crime. In order to show entrapment, you need to show that (1) but-for the cop's involvement, you wouldn't have committed the crime, and (2) if not for the cop, you wouldn't have been predisposed to commit the crime. Tough to do.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:10 AM on November 4, 2009

Make your contacts in jail or prison. Even then, cops can slip in, but it is a very expensive investment for them, so is used only for the biggest fish.

After that, the usual rules apply, see the above comments.
posted by Xoebe at 11:19 AM on November 4, 2009

Response by poster: Lots of good answers here, plenty of sensible advice.

I guess my interest was triggered by reading about Pat Livingston (aka Pat Salamone). He had a pretty weird story - part of the FBI's first undercover OP (targeting the US porn industry in the 80s), Livingston established himself as a businessman much as MuffinMan described, and became so immersed in his undercover identity, he seems to have confused who he really was at times, and was eventually arrested after trying to shoplift a coat and then giving his undercover name to the police.

Recent developments in undercover policing (1995)
Are the police allowed to lie to you? (2006)


I guess what I was really after is whether there might be some sort of instantaneous 'proof' of not being a cop. The answer would seem to be no, short of killing someone as instructed (something I imagine undercover police might do, but you'd probably never hear about it); doing drugs, as people have suggested in-thread, even hard drugs, may be no guarantee of a 'true criminal' in and of itself.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:53 AM on November 4, 2009

I'm guessing there is no way to have instantaneous proof. This is just a guess. Two stories that I read recently might interest you. Both were linked from MeFi.

This is a story of how an undercover agent infiltrates the IRA. I can't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure the story states that undercover agents in the IRA did kill other people and that it was basically the only way to "prove" they weren't undercover.

This is a story about undercover agents infiltrate a dogfighting ring, which addresses this issue. It took them a long time to infiltrate themselves, get to know people and gain trust. They had to fight dogs themselves.

In short, I think as people have already said, it's a case of time, rep and cred.
posted by triggerfinger at 1:07 PM on November 4, 2009

I think the classic example of this comes from the psychedelic community - the thumbprint. Before anyone becomes involved in the higher echelons of crystal production, they have to take a thumbprint. It may not be so relevant now, but there has been very little successful infiltration of LSD manufacturing operations over the last 50 years.

This raising a question that I've always wondered about regarding the undercover cops who do use drugs with criminals. How do they fake the tolerance/experience? Surely they don't get given a free supply to help get used to it? Sure, there are well-known opiate blockers but there are no antagonists for other drugs. How does a cop avoid K-holing when offered a small bump, freaking out on potent psychedelics, or ODing on other substances?
posted by turkeyphant at 2:43 PM on November 4, 2009

Relevant scene from Resevoir Dogs
posted by AceRock at 3:37 PM on November 4, 2009

This episode of the BBC's "Thinking Allowed" includes an interview with Diego Gambetta talking about his book.

From the programme synopsis: Laurie Taylor discusses the language of crime and the codes of criminal communication with Diego Gambetta, mafia scholar and criminal sociologist. He finds out why, in order to survive in the criminal underworld, language requires subtle, coded and sometimes gruesome modes of communication to avoid being found out by rivals or police.
posted by metaBugs at 3:46 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

If an undercover FBI agent does drugs, he has to report it to his superiors immediately, or as soon as it's safe to do so. Additionally, he has to do a bunch of paperwork, and take a blood test.

One sure fire way to tell if someone is an undercover cop (without having them kill someone to prove they aren't) is to commit a murder in front of them. They will be legally obliged to try to stop you.
posted by Sully at 8:23 PM on November 4, 2009

Sully, what law imposes that obligation?
posted by craven_morhead at 8:11 AM on November 5, 2009

Melismata, if a police officer were not allowed to lie, the way out would be exactly what fritley described. Make a different, misleading statement and allow the other person to infer what she wants without committing to a "yes" or a "no."
posted by Cricket at 10:25 AM on November 5, 2009

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