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Safeguarding undercover employees: a strategy for success.

The selection, management, and retention of effective undercover employees (UCEs) pose significant challenges to local, state, federal, and international law enforcement agencies. UCEs face unique experiences and stressors that set them apart from their overt counterparts and place them at increased risk for psychological injury, disciplinary action, and other adverse personal and professional consequences. Growing awareness of these hazards among law enforcement managers and allied mental health professionals has resulted in the discussion and development of proactive policies and procedures intended to safeguard the well-being of UCEs. (1)


Some agencies have independent units or divisions dedicated to the recruitment, training, certification, and management of UCEs. In many other cases, however, managers, supervisors, or affiliated mental health providers must tend to the operational and psychological needs of their UCEs. Regardless of how an agency administers the safeguard process, the commitment of its leaders to the well-being of UCEs from the time of recruitment to their return to regular or overt duties determines the impact and effectiveness of the initiative. (2) Such commitment and support prove essential to building a safeguard process that UCEs view as a credible, reliable, collaborative, and proactive program worthy of their trust and open and honest involvement.


The undercover safeguard process addresses the needs of UCEs and their agencies throughout the six phases (selection, training, operational planning, deployment, decompression, and reintegration) of covert activity. (3) To accomplish this, the safeguard process exposes the UCE to a complementary team of personnel who shares a commitment to the undercover mission and possesses specialized skills, knowledge, and abilities. At a minimum, this team includes a qualified mental health professional (for selection and monitoring purposes) and one or more experienced UCEs (to provide input regarding operational or target-specific subjects) who answer to an administrator or supervisor experienced in undercover matters. Given the complex and phased nature of the safeguard process, this team frequently accesses local and federal resources for case- or UCE-specific needs or questions (e.g., tactical, technological, backstopping, or legal) and readily taps into these resources to maximize effectiveness and efficiency. In so doing, the safeguard team can provide critical selection, education, stress inoculation, monitoring, debriefing or reintegration support, and risk management services to UCEs and their department.


The selection of UCEs is one of the most critical functions of the safeguard team. During this phase, members must apply their knowledge of existing research regarding the personal and professional qualities that distinguish effective UCEs to determine the suitability of a candidate for a given operation. They can maximize the accuracy of such decision making by focusing on the goodness of fit between the candidate and a particular undercover operation (UCO) or activity; by administering psychological tests designed to assess specific traits and skills; and by completing in-depth interviews and role-plays that provide critical information regarding the candidate's personal style, interpersonal skills, professional experience, and operational competence.

During the safeguard interviews, candidates meet independently with the mental health professional (assessor) to review the results of their psychological tests, relate their personal and professional histories, confirm their voluntary status, participate in a brief clinical interview, and discuss relevant personal and interpersonal issues (e.g., coping resources and personal, job, and family stressors). This psychological evaluation is complemented by an independent operational assessment conducted by an experienced UCE (counselor) focused on investigative knowledge, trade-craft issues, and problem-solving skills and includes role-play scenarios designed to elicit the candidate's responses to typical undercover experiences. Upon completion of these interviews, the assessor and counselor meet to share their impressions and form a final opinion regarding the suitability of the candidate to the operation. They communicate their findings in writing to the candidate's supervisor or the individual responsible for administering the UCO. The operation-specific nature of this assessment process is critical because it reminds the candidate and other involved parties of the reality that no one UCE can function effectively in every UCO. This case- or operation-specific orientation also is important in that it allows initially unsuccessful candidates to return for evaluation as new cases arise in the future.


The safeguard team also provides an educational function during its interviews with candidates and its ongoing contacts with personnel involved in the administration of UCOs. Specifically, the assessor and counselor provide the candidate with information regarding the qualities and traits that distinguish effective UCEs, the stressors that they commonly face, the possible pitfalls of undercover work, and the skills and abilities critical to success in undercover roles. In addition, interactions with supervisors and other law enforcement personnel provide the safeguard team with opportunities to educate colleagues regarding risks and benefits of undercover work, effective strategies for managing undercover stress and operations, and other pertinent information. The safeguard team also participates in the training of new or inexperienced undercover employees by providing blocks of classroom-based instruction, creating and participating in role-play scenarios, and functioning as mentors for novice UCEs.


By speaking with candidates and novice UCEs openly and frankly regarding the hazards associated with undercover work, the safeguard team promotes the self-awareness and mental preparation needed for them to remain resilient in the face of expected and unexpected stressors. This process challenges the myths promulgated by popular culture portrayals of undercover operatives and inoculates, or protects, UCEs against the adverse impact of undercover stress. This proactive approach attempts to minimize long-term negative changes in personal, professional, health, and family or interpersonal functioning by enhancing their self-awareness, sensitivity to the impact of the work, and willingness to request respite from undercover duties on an as-needed basis.

Support, Monitoring, and Retention

Upon completion of required training and certification, the UCE is referred to the safeguard process at the beginning, midpoint, and end of every covert operation. In the case of extended UCOs, the UCE participates in the safeguard process at regular intervals determined by the safeguard team (typically every 6 months but more frequently if at increased risk due to the nature of personal stressors or assignment). At each time point, the UCE completes psychological testing and interviews with the assessor and counselor. The repeated administration of psychological tests provides objective information regarding changes in stress levels and personality, as well as emotional, health, and interpersonal functioning, over time.

The testing results often identify areas of concern and serve as an important tool for the safeguard team during one-on-one interviews with the UCE, who may be unaware of these changes or unwilling to disclose them. In these cases, the testing results open the door to discussion of sensitive personal issues, which the team can monitor over the course of subsequent safeguard assessments. In many cases, this added monitoring and support feature allows the UCE to remain in the assigned UCO without disruption. In more extreme cases, however, temporary or permanent removal from the project may be necessary to address problems in personal functioning that jeopardize the health and well-being of the UCE, the UCO, or the department.

Debriefing and Reintegration

Both research and practice have highlighted the difficulties that UCEs often face upon termination of their UCOs and return to regular duty. (4) Without proper preparation and support prior to and during this period of reintegration, UCEs may manifest adjustment problems that significantly impair their ability to function in expected personal, familial, and professional roles. The safeguard team can ease the reintegration process by discussing the UCE's plan for return to regular duty even before the UCO begins and then again during each safeguard assessment. This approach reinforces undercover assignments as necessarily time limited and the return to regular duty as an expected outcome and not a punishment. Many agencies codify this expectation in policy guidelines that limit the time that any employee can spend undercover and provide for respite periods between undercover assignments.

Even with clear expectations and early preparation for reintegration, UCEs require careful support and monitoring during this phase. Debriefing at the close of the UCO is essential to determine their perspectives on the outcome of the investigation, the perceived level of support for their activity during the investigation, and their feelings about their return to regular duty. Particular attention must be paid to expressions of resentment, mistrust, or divided loyalty (i.e., identification with the target) or to lingering changes in appearance or behavior because these factors may impede successful reintegration. (5) When UCEs manifest these indicators, the safeguard team must work closely with departmental contacts to address and resolve them sensitively and directly. Successful resolution of reintegration-related issues is essential to long-term positive outcomes for both the UCE and the agency and constitutes a prerequisite for return to undercover work.

Risk Management and Liability Mitigation

The safeguard team's exclusive commitment to the health and well-being of the UCE serves a vital risk management and liability mitigation function for the agency. The initial selection process includes both objective and subjective measures of suitability that promote accurate decision making and minimize exposure to litigation related to negligent or unfair hiring or selection procedures. The education and ongoing monitoring and support components of the safeguard process reflect a commitment to prevention of duty-related injuries and early intervention when problems arise with undercover personnel. As such, the safeguard process provides an assertive risk management function that sensitively balances the needs of the UCE, the operation, and the agency.


To effectively execute the critical functions, the safeguard process must be anchored by an unwavering commitment to the primary well-being of the UCE. In addition, it must adhere to and display seven critical features.

Research Based

The safeguard approach is based on more than 25 years of institutional research regarding the experiences, stressors, and outcomes typically associated with undercover assignments. (6) This research has enhanced the selection and monitoring functions performed by safeguard personnel by limiting reliance upon anecdotal information, myth, rules of thumb, and personal opinion or bias. While this empirical research has formed the foundation of the safeguard process, the changing nature of crime and criminal investigations has forced continued study and programmatic evolution.

For optimal effectiveness, the safeguard team must be well versed in the small but coherent body of empirical research and knowledge regarding undercover stress and the personal and professional characteristics of effective UCEs. In addition, the mental health professional included in the safeguard team must be trained and qualified to administer and interpret appropriate psychological tests that directly measure the characteristics and qualities outlined in this research. Without this knowledge and experience, the safeguard team cannot be expected to accurately select future UCEs, anticipate operational or personal issues among active ones, or intervene appropriately with troubled employees.

Organizationally Embedded

Given the nature of its mission, the safeguard team requires unfettered access to internal and external resources for training UCEs; for establishing and maintaining cover identities; for monitoring the status of the UCO; for resolving administrative issues; and for addressing health, personal, and emotional needs of UCEs. As such, the safeguard team must be empowered to execute its mission and supported by agency personnel at all levels. Close and effective working relationships with agency command staff and federal law enforcement personnel also are essential to the safeguard mission.

Mission Oriented

To establish and maintain credibility among the UCE cadre, the safeguard team must focus on the primacy of the well-being of these employees over the outcome or progress of any given investigation. The team must reflect this primary allegiance to UCEs through the nonadversarial nature of the safeguard assessment process, regular contact with them to build rapport and trust, and written and oral communication with agency command staff regarding their suitability or status. Careful attention to the confidentiality of the information gleaned during safeguard assessments, maintained within a legally protected medical record, must guide all of these contacts. As such, communication regarding a given UCE to agency personnel must provide only essential information, such as the date and outcome of the assessment. In the absence of this type of unwavering commitment, UCEs may view the safeguard team as an adversarial tool of agency management that intends to strip them of their assignment, wantonly divulge their personal information, or intrude upon their lives.

Case Specific and Time Sensitive

To reduce errors in decision making, the safeguard process necessarily addresses very specific questions regarding the goodness of fit between a particular UCE and a particular case or assignment at a particular point in time. (7) This approach eliminates the need to make global conclusions in the face of insufficient information and, thus, enables the safeguard team to pinpoint the specific assets and liabilities the potential UCE brings to an assignment. This information is shared with the UCE during the safeguard assessment to enhance personal and professional functioning over the course of the UCO and to alert the employee to areas of risk and possible remediation. Given the case- and time-sensitive nature of this work, it remains imperative that safeguard personnel communicate their decisions to the necessary agency contacts in a timely manner because the UCE's status and suitability always can change.

Separate but Equal Assessment Process

At its core, the safeguard assessment process requires UCEs to undergo independent interviews with a mental health professional and an experienced UCE counselor on the same day. The unique content and structure of these promote broad coverage on a range of personal and operational issues. In addition, this bifurcated design often yields very different disclosures by UCEs based on their relationship and comfort level with the interviewer. This dynamic leads the safeguard team to generate two independent opinions based on different and unique sets of information, which members share and consider in rendering the final determination of suitability for undercover assignment. This approach proves critical in generating a well-rounded understanding of the undercover candidate and in reducing the potential impact of "group think" and other decision-making biases on determinations of suitability.

Broad Based

Decision making by the safeguard team is based on a host of objective and subjective information from multiple sources. This wide-ranging information-gathering method creates a holistic perspective of a given UCE that allows the safeguard team to render accurate decisions and provide tailored support and intervention as the need arises. Critical sources of information include objective personality testing; input from supervisors regarding the UCE's skills, achievements, behavior, and judgment; comments from family members or close contacts; and self-report information from the UCE.

Legally Minded

During the execution of their duties, team members must remain mindful of the legal issues possibly raised by the information they generate. The most pressing concern relates to the confidentiality of the records produced by the safeguard process. The agency should maintain these as confidential medical records apart from the UCE's personnel file and ensure that supervisory staff or other external parties cannot review them without written permission from the employee. Safeguard personnel may breach this confidentiality, however, should the UCE disclose homicidal or suicidal ideation, child or elder abuse, or significant criminal involvement. These caveats to confidentiality mirror those in traditional health-care settings and are clearly communicated to the UCE prior to participation in the safeguard process.

Given the content of safeguard records, some concerns have arisen regarding possible disclosure during the course of criminal legal proceedings in an attempt to discredit the testimony of UCEs. Although case law on this matter has been inconsistent, judges have typically ruled in favor of the protection of the UCE's personal information and service files in all but the most extreme cases of misconduct. Despite this overwhelming pattern, safeguard team members must remain cognizant of the possibility of future disclosure and discovery issues and must structure their documentation in keeping with established best practices related to medical record keeping. (8)



Undercover employees play a vital role in local and federal law enforcement agencies and experience a unique set of demands, stressors, and challenges in the execution of their duties. Case examples and research reports offer chilling evidence of the very real human toll of undercover investigations and emphasize the need for specialized selection, training, and support services suited to the needs of UCEs. (9) The safeguard process represents one integrated approach to addressing the selection, education, inoculation, monitoring, debriefing, and risk management and liability mitigation needs of both UCEs and law enforcement agencies. Effective implementation of an undercover safeguard program depends to a large extent upon organizational commitment to the primary well-being of UCEs and understanding of the well-documented consequences and correlates of undercover work.

Organizational commitment, support, and sensitivity are all necessary conditions for effective implementation of a safeguard program. But, the UCE's willingness to "buy in" to the program determines its ultimate success. Open, honest, and consistent participation in the safeguard process by the UCE cadre can be fostered by adherence to seven critical features that reflect and support the credibility, trustworthiness, responsiveness, reliability, and effectiveness of the safeguard staff.


(1) Australian Institute of Police Management, Managing the Risk of Psychological Injury Associated with Undercover Policing (Manly, NSW: Australian Institute of Police Management, 2003); L. Miller, "Undercover Policing: A Psychological and Operational Guide," Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 21 (2006): 1 -24: Neil S. Hibler, "The Care and Feeding of Undercover Agents," in Police Psychology-into the 21st Century eds. Neil S. Hibler, I. Kurke Martin, and Ellen M. Scrivner (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1995), 299-317; Stephen R. Band and Donald C. Sheehan, "Managing Undercover Stress: The Supervisor's Role," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 1999. 1-6.

(2) I. John Vasquez and Sharon A. Kelly, "Management's Commitment to the Undercover Operative: A Contemporary View," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 1989, 3-12.

(3) Supra note 1 (Hibler).

(4) Supra note 1 (Miller and Hibler).

(5) Supra note 1 (Hibler) and note 2.

(6) For additional information, see U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, The Special Agent in Undercover Operations: A Research Study (Quantico, VA, 1980); Michael Arter, "Undercover and Under Stress: The Impact of Undercover Assignments on Police Officers" (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2005); and Mark Pogrebin and Eric Poole, "Vice Isn't Nice: A Look at the Effects of Working Undercover," Journal of Criminal Justice 21 (1993): 383-394.

(7) David Faust and Jay Ziskin, "The Ex pert Witness in Psychology and Psychia try," Science 41 (1988): 31-35.

(8) Richard G. Schott, "The Discovery Process and Personnel File Information," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2003, 25-32.

(9) Supra note 1 (Hibler); Michel Girodo, "Health and Legal Issues in Undercover Narcotics Investigations: Misrepresented Evidence," Behavioral Sciences and the Law 3 (1985): 299-308; and Ric Kahn, "Secret Soldier in Drug War Lost Last Battle," The Boston Globe, February 27, 1994.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of her fellow members in the Undercover Safeguard Unit and Dr. Stephen R. Band in the preparation of this article.
Critical Functions and Features of the Undercover Safeguard Process

Critical Functions Critical Features

* Selection * Research Based
* Education * Organizationally Embedded
* Inoculation * Mission Oriented
* Support and Monitoring * Case Specific and Time Sensitive
* Debriefing and Reintegration * Separate but Equal Assessment
* Risk Management * Broad Based
 * Legally Minded

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Author:Krause, Meredith
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2008
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