If everything you know about undercover cops comes from Hollywood, you’re not alone. However, there’s a lot more to the job than what’s portrayed on the silver screen, of course, and the media often romanticizes this profession. Movies and television do get one thing right, however. Working as an undercover agent can involve becoming enmeshed in (potentially violent) criminal organizations and treading murky ethical lines to extract important information, all while remaining undetected.
Going undercover doesn’t just involve being a cop working in plainclothes. Undercover agents are officers who divorce themselves from their true identities. Undercover cops don’t carry police credentials; they live at an undercover residence. In fact, they may have a complete criminal history, credit report and other background data established for their undercover persona.
Once undercover agents have foregone their identity in favor of their undercover persona, they work to blend among criminals or criminal organizations, depending on the assignment. Their main goal is to procure solid evidence that will allow for the successful prosecution of criminals. It’s a highly risky and complex profession that’s truly not for the faint of heart.
Some common undercover cop characteristics include being amiable (a key part of the job is being able to make friends easily) and trustworthy, as well as having the ability to entertain complex, contradicting notions of morality. Undercover agents must be comfortable with learning the speech patterns and cultural norms of criminal organizations, establishing a reputation within the organization, and maintaining a criminal appearance and identity on a regular basis.
Though requirements vary, police officers are generally required to complete some college-level coursework or attain a college degree. Those who go the degree route would do well to consider criminal justice, criminology or sociology as their chosen field of study. Next, police academy training is necessary before an officer can begin working.
Officers who want to take on undercover work typically need to have in-depth experience working in law enforcement. You can’t usually go straight from the police academy to working undercover. The next step to becoming an undercover agent is to prepare for the intensive application process required by law enforcement agencies.
From a physical and mental standpoint, undercover cop requirements also dictate that officers stay in tip-top shape; in fact, officers will likely have to undergo a series of physical examinations before they can begin work. Being an undercover agent requires physical agility and stamina, so this is an important prerequisite for the job.
Once an officer has been in the field for a few years, he or she may be able to request undercover duties. Most police departments will require officers to spend several years patrolling the streets and working as a detective to familiarize themselves with specific criminal activity. Then, once an undercover agent is in the field, they typically work on undercover-specific operations for a few months at a time, although federal-level operations can go on for a number of years.
Years of Experience and Salary
While data isn’t available for the specific title of undercover agent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers salary data for the broader category of “police and detectives.” According to the BLS, in 2018, the median annual salary for police and detectives was $63,380, which means that half earned more than this, while the other half earned less. An undercover cop’s salary in 2018 was likely similar to this figure.
Job Growth Trend
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment of police and detectives is projected to grow by about 7 percent from 2016 to 2026. This is about as fast as the national average for all occupations. Because of the ever-present need for public safety, specialized cops such as undercover agents will likely always enjoy steady employment opportunities.