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What does an Undercover Detective do?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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An undercover detective conducts investigations of suspected or confirmed criminal activity while impersonating a disinterested third party, infiltrating a suspected subversive group or posing as a person interested in purchasing illegal goods or services. She normally begins her career in law enforcement as a police officer. Before going undercover, she may serve as a regular police detective.

This position has no clearly defined job description. As circumstances and situations dictate, an undercover detective becomes what character is best suited to solve the crime. This may involve undergoing simple changes in appearance but may sometimes require her to change her hair color, place of residence or whom she interacts with in social or professional venues. She may also be required to change her speech to reflect a particular accent or dialect to aid in her authentic depiction of the undercover persona.

An undercover detective assignment may last days, months or, in rare circumstances, years. The assignment may involve something as simple as tracking down a missing person. Conversely, it may be an intricate task that focuses on many people, diverse scenarios and a mixture of alleged criminal activity.

Surveillance is often part of her job. This may entail watching a person or location for a long period of time before witnessing any hard evidence of criminal activity. Criminal activities where surveillance techniques are most commonly used frequently involve buying or selling contraband products such as firearms. Money laundering activities are also regularly documented through surveillance operations.

Undercover detectives are frequently called upon to testify or present evidence at trials and hearings for those they have been observing and investigating. If an undercover cop is regularly used on investigations where criminals may know one another, her testimony may be provided from a remote location. This avoids her identity from being revealed and precluding her assistance in future investigations.

The seriousness of the suspected crime notwithstanding, an undercover cop’s main concern is customarily to keep her identity from being revealed. This disclosure could destroy not only her own department’s evidence and case but may also invalidate extensive evidence gathered by other law enforcement agencies. Being identified could also put her life in danger. If her cover is blown, she is usually removed from the case and relocated to a safe location where there is little chance of her being identified. In some situations, she is put back in uniform until it is safe for her to resume undercover activities.

It is fairly common for an undercover detective to seek less dangerous detective work after retirement or if she quits the force due to job burnout or stress. She frequently works as private detective or a consultant in the private sector. If she chooses to stay with the police department, she often opts to take a desk job rather than work the streets.

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Discussion Comments
By Drentel — On Nov 25, 2014

The article mentions how undercover detectives can burn out. I have heard that this happens quite a bit. I saw a movie that was based on a true story where the undercover cop got to the point that he felt more at home with the mobsters he was investigating than he did with his own family and the cops he worked with.

This type of job has to be mentally exhausting. I would be constantly concerned that I was going to get confused and say the wrong thing.

By Feryll — On Nov 24, 2014

@Lationne - The parents of one of my basketball teammates from college both worked on the police force. He said both of them had worked undercover at some point during their careers. By the time my buddy went to college both of his parents had stopped working undercover. However, before she had children, his mother worked undercover all of the time.

He told me that one of the reasons she stopped the undercover work was because working undercover was very stressful, and once she started a family she didn't want to bring that stress home to her family. I think being an undercover detective in real life is a lot different from what we see portrayed on TV and in the movies.

I can't imagine working around dangerous criminals and pretending to be someone else, and then going home and having to be a parent and make dinner and help the kids with their homework.

By Laotionne — On Nov 23, 2014

I think working undercover as a police detective investigator has to be one of the most interesting jobs in the world. The undercover officer is doing police work, which is exciting enough by itself, but he also gets to act and pretend to be someone else. Dangers aside, this is definitely an interesting way to make a living.

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