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Ethical Issues of Undercover Police

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1780 words Published: 4th Mar 2019

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When an officer goes on an undercover assignment, it is more psychological for the officer than anything else. Undercover assignments can cause havoc on the officer’s marriage, family relationships and even on his self. When officers go deep undercover for long periods of time, it sometimes can cause them to go rogue and become on the other side of the law. There are certain rules and regulations that officers have to follow while undercover, this paper will discuss these rules and regulations of being undercover as well as reviewing all the ethical dilemmas the two undercover officers faced while on assignment. Also, how a new supervisor could prevent that type of behavior with future undercover officers will also be discussed in this paper. It is so essential for someone that goes on undercover, to not get lost while on assignment. The focus is essential; they cannot lose focus. It may be exciting for some but some; it could lead them on a road of continuous unethical decision making.

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On many occasions, undercover officers are forced to be away from their family and friends for long periods of time. It can reek havoc on that family relationship because some officer’s attitudes change as well as their absence from the home. If they have children, it makes it that much worse. It is necessary for officers who go undercover always to follow the rules and regulations to avoid falling on the other side of the law and going rogue. If the officer does not follow the rules and regulations exactly, it is easy for them to get caught up in illegal activities. Undercover officers face ethical dilemmas all the time; it is up to them to make the right decision over the wrong one. If the officer makes the wrong decision, it can not only put them and the rest of the team’s lives in danger, but it could also cost them their career and land them potentially behind bars with the same criminals they put behind those same bars.

Rules and Regulations of Undercover Assignments

There are not many rules that are known to the public for the simple reason of not allowing the public to weed out those who are undercover. However, there is a two-drink maximum rule in place where officers are only allowed to consume two alcoholic drinks per night while undercover. However, while permitting specific illegal behavior on behalf of the police who are undercover, the public will lose trust in the police for the simple fact the police were allowed to legally break the law when if the people of the community did the same thing, they would be arrested and charged with no questions asked. Having public trust and moral authority is essential for the police in a democratic society (Joh, 2009). It is allowing the officers to be free of following the basic rule of law principles that are set in place. Every state has their own set of undercover rules and regulations, and they may differ from state to state. However, for the state of Oregan, the covert operations are explained in detail of what is and is not allowed while conducting an undercover investigation (“0640.95 Undercover Safety and Operation Procedures | 0600 – Field Operations | The City of Portland, Oregon”, 2018). Officers who work undercover could work the assignment alone or with two or more team members. The most crucial thing for an officer to remember is never to have any clothing or items that are visible to the naked eyes that would reveal they’re true identity. So this would include, their badge, uniform, holster, anything that would be recognized as a police uniform (“0640.95 Undercover Safety and Operation Procedures, 2018).

In Portland, there are a few different rules that must be followed by the officers going undercover. A few of those rules include: The officer cannot consume any controlled substances. If a situation arises that the officer is being forced to use, they should refuse. However, if the suspect pushes more, the officer should take their self out of the situation and terminate the assignment. Another rule is for the officer always to be armed no matter where they are at (“0640.95 Undercover Safety and Operation Procedures, 2018). Also, officers should not drink alcohol when on assignment, however, if the situation arises that they must they should refrain from drinking in excess. Nevertheless, if alcohol was consumed then the officer should report it immediately and cannot participate in any police activity until the effects of the alcohol have worn off (“0640.95 Undercover Safety and Operation Procedures, 2018).

The Ethical Dilemma’s Officers Face

In the scenario, both officers made numerous unethical decisions that could have cost them both their career or even their life. When the officer’s get caught by their superiors of committing police misconduct, and they see no punishment for their actions, then it leaves the officer to continue their behavior and sometimes even escalate their behavior. For example, the more experienced officer, Tony, consumed many drinks, bought cigarettes and even played pool on the contingency funds. He also has purchased Marijuana with the same funds. Tony’s informant even gets paid fifty dollars from the funds needed for the investigation. However, when Tony sees’s the informant, he not only kisses her but also grabs her behind and makes an offensive statement to her. This is not necessary to keep his cover. He sounds like a jerk especially since he does not like to work as a team. He prefers to work alone. Even though Tony logged the expenses into the book does not mean all that he logged was accurate. When he paid the informant the fifty dollars, the receipt was not witnessed by Johnny until the next day. He was asked to witness the receipt of the transaction between Tony and his informant, but he lied because he was not there when the transaction occurred so he can not say for sure where that fifty dollars went.

Over the past three years, Johnny has many accomplishments but also has had to face the consequences relating to a traffic accident while using an undercover car, being late as well as using inappropriate language and turning his reports in late. Noticeably, the more Johnny is around Tony, the more he is becoming just like him. He is disregarding his job, his family and other outside commitments. They both ditch work and go to the bar and drink until their shift ends. So now they are driving home intoxicated. Johnny has become just like Tony in regards to not being a team player. Tony has negatively influenced Johnny. Instead of showing him the right way to do things, he showed him the way he does things. However, by doing this, Johnny is now lying to his wife about his whereabouts as well as drinking excessively on the job which entails driving intoxicated. Coming in all hours of the night when he was not working or way after his shift ended. This is not the type of behavior of an officer, whether uniformed or undercover, should act. Johnny even using his unmarked car for pleasure without asking or notifying his superior.

Preventing the Same Behavior in the Future

When a new supervisor comes into the department, they should have an idea of how they want their unit ran. No matter how long any of the officers have been there, it is the supervisor’s job to make sure things are running efficiently as well as avoiding any misconduct from their officers (Dwyer, 2008). There is a set of code of ethics that is separate from the formalized rules and regulations. The supervisor should take the code of ethics and print them on a card for each officer. A small card they can carry around with them at all times, in their wallet or pocket. Every time they put they hand in their pocket; they will feel the card and glance at it. The problem with many departments, is some of the officer’s do not give the code of ethics a second thought (Dwyer, 2008). When these code of ethics have been violated by an officer, the consequence should be enforced and not pushed under the rug. The example should be made of these officers because then the newer officers will get the idea that the supervisor nor the department is something to take lightly.

By the police department being able to control their officer’s behavior as they see fit is essential when trying to accomplish the agency’s service goals and mission. Having the courts back the departments is also necessary. Rarely, officers who have made attempts to persuade the courts to make the departments relax the dictates has been deterred (Dwyer, 2008).  It is so important to have a department that has stability, and once the balance is shaken, the officer who is trying to go against it should be handled right then and there. There should not be a chance after chance because all that tell the officers is that its okay do not do it again, in which they do (Dwyer, 2008).

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Every officer, whether in uniform or undercover, should have a code of ethics they follow. Most people are raised up with morals, and some carry those morals as they grow up, but some forget those morals after they leave home. Not only should a person have their own set of ethics to follow but also they should follow their department’s code of ethics. If more officers were reprimanded for violating any of the code of ethics set by their department, then maybe there would be less misconduct within the criminal justice system. There is no officer better than the other. Being on the police force means having a team of officers, not a solo officer who feels they can take on the world by their self. When the officers have that mentality, they sometimes end up on the other side of the law.


0640.95 Undercover Safety and Operation Procedures | 0600 – Field Operations | The City of Portland, Oregon. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.portlandoregon.gov/police/article/529154

Dwyer, T. (2008). Codes of ethics and officer discipline. Retrieved from https://www.policeone.com/legal/articles/1743985-Codes-of-ethics-and-officer-discipline/

Joh, E. (2009). Breaking the Law to Enforce it: Undercover Police Participation in Crime. Stanford Law Review62.


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