Just about every agency either has a narcotics division or belongs to a regional drug task force, so sooner or later you may wind up doing time as a narc. Cops fall into two categories: those that love narcotics work and those that hate it. Whether you view a narcotics assignment as a plum or not, you will find it to be a very different world from patrol, or even other investigations. Now, I don't mean here to suggest that I'm some kind of super narc. I'm not - at all. In this article I'm not talking about flying to Columbia to buy tons of coke, nor about targeting the biggest drug dealers in the country. After all, I'm just a burger-flipper on my county's task force, where the detectives from the lead agencies do the heavy lifting. The following observations are based on my time doing bread-and-butter, work-a-day, community narcotics enforcement... which is the kind of job you're most likely to find yourself doing.
First: some of the differences between narcotics and other assignments, and some of the reasons that there's this love/hate relationship with the role.
A Different World
- There's lots of dead time, waiting for something to happen - usually someone to call you back and set something up. Confidential informants and dealers aren't the kind of people that keep their appointments on Palm Pilots, and they don't exactly have a lot of discipline or sense of responsibility. I've watched whole movies on TV waiting for a buy to come together.
- You will dress differently. Narcs - not even counting undercover officers - have to blend into their environment, so you'll be dressing down considerably. Also, you'll probably be shaving a whole lot less regularly than you do now, and maybe you'll grow a beard or goatee. You will look grungier. Your spouse may not be happy with this.
- The hours suck. In fact, you may not have regular hours at all. You'll be at the mercy - hours-wise - of your informants and the people you are targeting. You work when they are active, and that varies day by day. You'll have to take calls and spring into action on a moment's notice, at any time of the day or night. This drives some officers with families nuts, and for this reason narc work is best suited for officers with either understanding or no spouses, no kids, no life, or all of the above.
- Informants - Cis - are CIs and not productive citizens with real jobs like bankers and plumbers for a reason. At the risk of leaving out the one or two exceptions in all of history, it's fair to say that they will try every last fiber of your patience. They don't do what they say they will do, don't call when they said they would, drop out of sight for weeks of time, and are generally completely unreliable. Unfortunately, they are also your lifeline - a narc is only as good as his/her informants. You will work on their schedule; you'll have to appear empathetic about their silly self-inflicted problems; you'll have to schmooze them. Get used to hating your new best friends.
- You'll have to learn to lose the cop look that lets anyone pick you our of a crowd. You will have to learn to blend. Shuffle, slouch, relax!
- You need to be flexible and go with the flow. If you are the type of person who goes on duty expecting to do one thing, and it turns out that you have to do something completely different, and this frustrates you, then you may not like narcotics. See my point above about being at the mercy of your targets and CIs. You need what in the corporate world is called a high tolerance for ambiguity. Some people have it; some don't.
- You will need to know some raid skills. The capstone of most investigations is the execution of a search warrant, and these entries are dynamic affairs very much like a dynamic SWAT entry. In fact, they are identical. So the next time your state, agency, or any other entity offers a course (usually a multi-day affair) on raids or basic SWAT skills, take it, even if you have to do it on your own time and dime. You will feel a lot more comfortable doing a dynamic entry with officers who know what they're doing than not, and you certainly don't want to be the new guy who doesn't.