Reflections of an undercover officer

A plainclothes officer does not have the protection of a duty belt or badge. Even so, his or her most prevalent injuries remain psychological.


“The first time [an officer goes on patrol], that’s very frightening. But he’s been trained to do that. Most undercover training is: ‘Here’s $40. Go into the ’hood and buy some dope.’ That’s it. Now that’s stressful, because I never bought dope as a kid.”

There are a lot of things Charlie Fuller, executive director of the International Association of Undercover Officers (IAUO) wishes he’d known before embarking on his career in plainclothes. Mainly he realized through the years how profoundly undercover work can change you. There are few books written on the subject. Training is scant, too. When an officer goes out into the fray—sans uniform, sans team, and with only one-way communication—it’s easy to feel…not quite like oneself.

Are you a cop? Or are you a duck?

Talk about mind games. As an undercover lying is a prerequisite of the job. When the lies pile up, it can become easy to believe them. It can be even easier to master the art of manipulation. In the thick of his career, Fuller’s “double life” devastated his marriage and had him questioning his own identity.

He argues the most dangerous part of being out of uniform will always be mental. Shootouts happen from time to time in this line of work, but more officers are suspended, fired, jailed or killed because of psychological issues rather than for physical reasons.

“The problem is," says Fuller, "undercover officers have a police subconscious, but that’s not the same as an undercover subconscious.” He explains that most departments don’t adequately transition officers or brace them for this cerebral shift. As an officer, you still have authority. But in a startling way, when the clothes are shucked—the badge and the uniform—so is that authority as seen by everyone with whom you come into contact. It’s kind of like the saying, “the clothes make the man”.

Fuller has what he calls “The Duck Theory”: “They want you to dress like a duck, talk like a duck, act like a duck, deal with ducks…and it’s very easy, if you’re not careful, to become a duck. It’s an erosion of who you really were to begin with. No one really tells [officers] that’s what’s going to happen.”

At the height of his own identity battle—Charlie Fuller, son of an FBI agent and reared in a religious, middle-class environment, was up against the arrogant and dishonest Charlie Dawson. He talks about the trying period in his book “The Art of Undercover: Techniques and Survival.” His first undercover assignment in Polk County, Fla. (for which he volunteered) involved making purchases of illegal weapons as Charles Dawson.

“I distinctly remember asking myself, ‘Charles, are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ I also remember consciously not answering myself because I absolutely did not know what I was doing,” he writes.

He describes his first few assignments as an intensely stressful point in his life when he was ridden with anxiety. “I lived deep undercover in Polk County for four months as Charlie Dawson. I made just about every mistake an undercover agent could possibly make. I trusted a professional informant, lied to my supervisors, compromised my integrity—especially my morality, drank too much, condoned the use of marijuana and broke the law (misdemeanors only). In other words, I lost it! I became the person I was role playing.”

He says the first thing supervisors tell officers going into undercover work is to “quit acting like a cop,” in essence, reinforcing non-police behavior. “But when they come back into the office they say, ‘Quit acting like a duck; you’re a cop, act like one’. Most departments don’t really like their undercover guys,” he says, “because they don’t fit the…mould, and [everyone’s] afraid they’re going to go bad or become a duck. Because when it happens it’s usually pretty dramatic.”

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