There was this big, scary guy hanging around my neighborhood. I’d see him coming and going at all hours of the day and night to the place down the street. In my very ordinary neighborhood on a lovely summer afternoon and I was sitting on the deck with the newspaper and I see that the big, scary guy is back.
You’ve read the headlines. “Drug ring busted.” “Crime spree ended by sting.” “Undercover agents nab terror suspects.” But where these headlines come from is a whole other world that we don’t see or hear or write about in too much detail. A looking glass world where day is night and night is day, the world of the undercover cop.
TV romanticizes undercover work. In 90 minutes of flickering lights you can’t capture the hours of boring surveillance, the world that doesn’t work in shifts, the home life that gets missed and the real risk that when you leave that home you’ve got a lot better chance than most folks of never coming back. It’s a world of shadows where appearances can mean everything and nothing. A cross between convincing and conniving some of the world’s most dangerous people with words before guns.
According to Captain Dave Young of the Pennsylvania State Police, an undercover agent for more than a decade, it’s a question of training. “There are levels of undercover work,” Young says, “and doing it safely is a question of preparation and knowing the opposition.”
Something of an understatement when you consider that taking down a major drug ring can take moths, even years of patient nurturing to get the suspects’ trust to timing, plans and merchandise. Knowing that in the age of Miranda warnings and the ACLU one mistake can end the case or your life.
But according to Young there isn’t any shortage of officers willing to take on the role. “We get officers volunteering from across the board,” he says, “sometimes we need very young ones to infiltrate high schools but in each case the question is the safety of the officers, the suspects and the people around them.”
The safety of the suspects? Dealing dope is a very profitable business and dope dealers can afford really expensive guns. Nothing would ruin a lovely summer day quicker than a game of townhouse-roulette with a junkie that’s never fired a gun before and is hell bent on not getting caught.
In Pennsylvania undercover cops rarely get the cold feet from the kind of work that would freeze most mortals’ toes. “I’ve never seen a case where an undercover officer quit in the middle of a case,” Young says.
According to Pennsylvania’s Uniform Crime Reporting system in August of last year nearly 4,000 people in the state were arrested for narcotics crimes. Drugs are a plague in this state and if terrorism gets fueled by narcotics money we’ll get to learn the hard way the definition of pestilence. The front line defense in this war for the country’s very soul are the hundreds of federal, state and local undercover officers working the streets every day.
As for the big scary guy someday I’d like to tell you about him in detail but for now if you are the praying kind keep him in mind. When he came back to my ordinary neighborhood he had a badge on his belt and a pistol on his hip. Within minutes he and his pals took away the ordinary people who lived in the ordinary place and the extraordinary cache of powdered death that might have found its way to the ordinary schoolyard in your ordinary neighborhood.
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.