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The Drug Enforcement Administration employed more than 10,000 people as of 2012, including agents from a variety of backgrounds. Some employees are chemists or forensics experts, while others specialize in psychology or other social sciences. Consequently, there is no typical day in the life of a DEA agent, and DEA workers fulfill a number of duties.
DEA employees might spend much of their time investigating crimes, and the specific duties included in an investigation vary. A DEA forensic scientist, for example, might conduct DNA tests on evidence, while a DEA special agent might evaluate evidence from the forensic lab, and then use it to put together a list of suspects. Agents must carefully review evidence and data as part of their investigatory job duties, and must also coordinate with the DEA bureaucracy. Much of a DEA's daily investigatory duties are determined by the agency's mission and current priorities. For example, a branch of the DEA that is planning a large drug raid may concentrate most of its investigative resources on a single case.
It might not be glamorous, but paperwork is a vital part of life as a DEA agent. Law enforcement agents must get judges to sign warrants before conducting raids or searches, and every incident -- from shootings to arrests -- typically requires a narrative report. DEA agents must also review other agents' paperwork, such as when a supervisor checks another agent's work to ensure accuracy and completeness.
Working With Local Agencies
The DEA frequently coordinates its actions with other law enforcement agencies, most notably local police. An agent might, for example, work with the Los Angeles police to raid a meth lab or to help arrest a well-known drug dealer. In this role, DEA agents offer instructions and support to other agencies, often providing advice on how to use DEA weapons, effective arrest techniques and when and how to arrest a particular suspect. The DEA may also coordinate with federal agencies such as the FBI, and this requires regular communication between agencies, and may also require an agent to work out of another office.
Enforcing the Law
The most visible role of most DEA agents is in their direct law enforcement capacity, which includes arresting criminal suspects. DEA agents may participate in surveillance by directly observing suspects or watching videos of their actions, working with criminal informants who provide information about drug suspects and coordinating arrests. This is typically the most dangerous part of an agent's job, and is a role that forensic scientists and other DEA employees without law enforcement backgrounds may not participate in.
Many DEA employees testify in court at some point. Forensic scientists might answer questions about their data and how it relates to a case. Special agents may provide details on a criminal investigation, in addition to answering questions about whether their arrests followed the law by informing a defendant of his Miranda rights or avoiding excessive use of force. This role often requires significant time reviewing the details of a case, and may also mandate consultation with the prosecuting attorney.
- Drug Enforcement Administration: DEA Fact Sheet
- Drug Enforcement Administration: DEA Programs -- State and Local Task Forces
- Bloomsburg University: Renowned DEA Agent Reveals Ins-and-Outs of Undercover Life
- Just Think Twice: Inside DEA
- Drug Enforcement Administration: Occupations
- Drug Enforcement Administration: DEA Special Agent Careers
- American Civil Liberties Union: Court Rules Drug Prescription Warrant Is Required to Access DEA Database
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.