Watch Out: Undercover Houston Police Are on Patrol
We’ve all seen the movies – Undercover Cop (hero) Takes Down Big, Bad Gangster (villain) and gets both the girl and the medal. But as with everything in life, the reality is a bit, well – less neatly packaged. Let’s take a look at the role of undercover police and how they operate, particularly in the Houston environment.
So how do undercover police work, and why are they allowed to do it in the first place? It’s not just about deception, although that’s a big part of it. The purpose is to enable officers to blend inconspicuously with the criminals in order to gather evidence that can be used to prosecute them successfully.
There are three different types of undercover police work, which each have distinctive purposes:
- Surveillance – Which is an operation to gather intelligence
- Prevention – which usually takes a proactive approach to avoiding the crime before it happens
- Facilitation – Which requires officers to actively encourage a crime by their participation, providing opportunities and access to “take down” the criminals—often in the act
Of these, the last is the most controversial, because it promotes the existence of rogue behavior in police officers and is essentially the breaking of law to enforce the law.
Murdering the Myths
For most people, the first question that arises is whether uncover policing is legal or not, both in Houston and elsewhere. Various myths exist about this issue, including:
- Police aren’t allowed to use deception (lies) to entrap you
- An undercover officer is required to admit if s/he is law enforcement if you ask them directly
Both of these ideas—and many others you might come across—are pure speculation, and simply aren’t true. There are certainly some situations in which police are required to identify themselves, such as when they are executing a search warrant or making an arrest, but this doesn’t apply in undercover investigations. And it’s only when an officer uses coercion to get an otherwise law-abiding citizen to commit a crime he or she wouldn’t usually participate in that actual entrapment takes place
Another misconception is that undercover police officers aren’t allowed to actually commit crimes. Throw this one out the window, too! Police are legally allowed to take up undercover assignments, which often require them to impersonate criminals to get close to them. This means they can:
- Take part in seemingly criminal activities, including things like using, selling and supplying illegal drugs
- Go to considerable effort to help a known criminal commit a crime
- Deliberately mislead people about their true identity
The Point of the Practice
So, given all these issues, you’re probably wondering if there’s any value to having undercover cops on patrol. Well, here’s the kicker: it’s considered authorized criminality by the powers that be, and it’s secret, unaccountable and conflicts with many of the principles of democratic policing.
It’s Happening in Houston
It’s never going to happen in your city, right? Wrong. Undercover policing is happening across the United States on a daily basis with the (supposed) intention of fighting crime and keeping residents safe. And that includes Houston, where officers have been the topic of unfavorable media reports, sometimes for conduct that violates due process and people’s rights.
For example, during the 2011 Occupy action at the Port of Houston, undercover officers taking part in preparation for the demonstration encouraged young protestors to do things that were, in fact, a felony. The defendants’ lawyer said in a statement that the officers were well aware they were setting up their young clients to commit a felony, instead of the misdemeanor charge that would have applied otherwise.
In other news, back in 2010 two officers on a prostitution case took naked photos of an exotic dancer even after they had made their bust. Not only were they accused of going too far, the case was dropped because of their conduct. The ends of justice were defeated because of the methods that were used.
The Risks Involved
The risks aren’t limited to the public or even the criminals, however; the officers themselves can pay a high price for undercover work.
Rogue Behavior – One of the biggest dangers of undercover policing is the risk of officers indulging in “rogue” behavior, such as the naked photo case. It’s one thing when the practice results in the prosecution—and protection—of we, the people from perpetrators, such as the Canadian identity thieves who opened a fake job placement agency in Houston to collect private information from job seekers. It’s something else entirely when the officers use their position and their power to benefit personally, which the exotic dancer believes is what happened in her case.
Lost Identities – There’s also the risk of undercover officers giving in to the stress and psychological isolation of the job to the point that they “go native” and begin to believe in their false identities themselves. This can end up with them becoming ordinary criminals as they lose sight of their purpose in enforcing the law.
Physical Harm – Officers are also at risk of being harmed during undercover work, and are forbidden by the guidelines from participating in violent acts except during self-defense. That means that in the event an officer needs to protect himself, he is under pressure afterwards to prove that the use of force was justified under the circumstances.
Taking Final Responsibility
Undercover policing is a reality in Houston and elsewhere, and while the Special Agent in Charge of officers carries ultimate responsibility for their actions, each officer must manage his—or her—own actions to the best of their ability. Not an easy job, but sometimes a necessary one! The next time you watch Paul Walker in The Fast and the Furious, remember it isn’t all glamor and lights.