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A training "system" for undercover teams.

For years, police managers believed that the success of units rested with the long-term assignment of officers. Undercover officers also asserted that only a lengthy internship could develop an experienced and effective undercover officer. However, because of the potentially serious problems associated with specialized undercover units, such as employee burnout and prospects for corruption, many agencies now mandate the periodic rotation of personnel serving in these units.

While the conflict between the need to rotate officers and the need to maintain operational effectiveness cannot be resolved easily, Michigan law enforcement agencies believe that they now have a program that addresses these critical issues. In a cooperative effort, law enforcement agencies on the State, city, township, and county levels formed multijurisdictional undercover drug teams and then instituted a training system that allows for the rotation of officers without reducing the teams' effectiveness.

Undercover Drug Teams

Currently, 23 multijurisdictional, undercover drug teams work throughout the State of Michigan. The staffing of these teams is achieved through the rotation of officers to and from their home departments. Each department prescribes a period of time for its officers to work on the team--usually from 18 to 36 months. However, for purposes of stability, the team commander positions are long-term assignments.

Rotation benefits the teams by reducing the potential for burnout and corruption. It also ensures the availability of new faces for undercover assignments.

At the same time, the rotation process benefits the officers' respective departments by providing career enhancement opportunities. In addition, working on the team broadens the officers' experience levels which, in turn, sends more experienced officers back to participating departments.

Still, the rotation of personnel also has an obvious disadvantage. Specifically, the rotation process can adversely affect the continuity of enforcement efforts when the personnel turnover rate is coupled with a lack of effective training. Undercover officers, who learn primarily through on-the-job training (OJT), do not begin to approach peak effectiveness in drug enforcement until they have at least 12-18 months experience.(1) Yet, OJT, as applied in almost all plainclothes units, is a very inefficient learning technique that slows an individual officer's development.

This conflict between the need to rotate personnel and the need to maintain effectiveness led to the development of Michigan's current training system for undercover operatives. Through the use of proper and timely training, this program allows the regular rotation of undercover operatives without sacrificing productivity.

Training System

After reviewing available training, it became apparent to the Michigan State Police that no existing program met the needs of the various teams. This review also identified four problem areas--relevancy of training, lack of student participation, availability and timeliness of training, and resistance from field supervisors. Therefore, management decided that a new training system was necessary.

To begin, a committee of experienced officers developed a curriculum for a 1-week basic narcotics school. Instructors presented the course material in a classroom lecture format, covering such topics as drug identification, preparation for undercover assignments (with a strong emphasis on officer safety), handling informants, tactical planning, stress management, and the law. This made the training more relevant to the students and their teams.

At the conclusion of each training session, the students critiqued the program. This allowed officials to make curriculum modifications based on the students' recommendations. For example, as a result of student suggestions, the session now includes a combination of lectures, hands-on exercises, and videotaped role-playing exercises.

In order to ensure effectiveness, managers coordinate the beginning of basic narcotics classes with the rotation of officers to the teams from their home departments. By doing this, newly assigned officers receive formal training in a timely fashion. Scheduling classes in this manner also minimizes reliance on OJT, allowing officers to become productive team members in a shorter amount of time.

Four months after team members attend the basic school, they attend a 1-week advanced narcotics course. This followup session increases officers' participation and refines their investigative skills through tactical planning and team building. A realistic scenario serves as the vehicle to develop problem-solving skills.

The officers participate in a 4-day role-playing scenario that begins with the briefing of an informant and includes undercover contacts with suspects, actual surveillance in the community, intelligence gathering, drafting search warrants, and identifying forfeitable assets. During the scenario, students interact with role players and others. The scenario ends with a mock trial.

Asking the officers to develop a case in this manner forces them to identify objectives and plan for the commitment of resources. And, as the case develops, the instructors can critique the students' strategies and operational techniques at each stage of the mock investigations.

Two basic schools and four advanced schools are scheduled annually. Because the advance school incorporates "hands-on" training, the class size is smaller, which requires more sessions. Using this system, newly assigned officers receive training in a timely fashion, reliance on OJT is minimized, and officers become productive team members in a much shorter time.

Training Supervisors

New supervisors attend both the basic and the advanced narcotics schools, where supervisors and undercover officers often reverse roles. This allows supervisors to experience the pressures of "going under" and gives undercover officers the opportunity to gain an appreciation of decisionmaking responsibilities.

After attending the schools, some field supervisors continue their association with the training program by serving in a pool of lecturers. In addition, all field supervisors rotate as evaluators in the advanced school. They monitor the progressive scenario, critique strategy and operational procedures, and counsel the student work groups.

Using field supervisors as classroom lecturers and evaluators serves two primary purposes. It helps to keep course content current, and it helps to improve the supervisors' attitudes toward the training. Informal feedback from participants indicates an overall improvement in the level of on-the-job training provided in the field as a result of field supervisor involvement in the program.


All agencies that use undercover officers as part of their enforcement strategy must recognize and accept the accompanying responsibility and liability.(2) The problems associated with undercover operations appear to be universal and not a function of demographics.

For example, undercover officers often report that they feel partially or totally unprepared to do their jobs.(3) They also frequently express concern about the background and technical abilities of their field supervisors.(4) Finally, studies have indicated that law enforcement agencies sometimes rely too heavily on OJT.(5)

With these issues in mind, law enforcement managers must address the effectiveness, integrity, and overall improvement of their undercover units. Managers should use systematic training to address these problems. With minor modifications, a training system similar to that established in Michigan could meet the needs of most undercover units.


1 Kevin G. Love, "The Ultimate Role Conflict: Assessing and Managing the Undercover Officer," Michigan State Police, East Lansing, Michigan, 1990.

2 John I. Vasquez and Sharon A. Kelly, "Management's Commitment to the Undercover Operative," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 1989.

3 Gary M. Farkas, Stress in Undercover Policing (Washington, DC: Psychological Services for Law Enforcement, 1986), p. 543.

4 G.I. Miller, "Observations on Police Undercover Work," Criminology, January 1987, 27-46.

5 Manuel Garza, Multi-agency Narcotics Unit Manual, National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, p. 151; Paul A. Wallace, Roy R. Roberg, and Harry E. Allen, "Job Burnout Among Narcotics Investigators: An Exploratory Study," Journal of Criminal Justice, 1985, 549-559; Tom Gabor, "Rotation: Is It Organizationally Sound?" FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 1992, 16-19.

Lieutenant Tuttle is the commanding officer of the Southeast Michigan Conspiracy Organization (SEMCO) of the Michigan Department of State Police in Livonia, Michigan.
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Title Annotation:Police Practices; undercover policemen
Author:Tuttle, James P.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:May 1, 1993
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