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Portrait of Eugène François Vidocq, pioneering criminologist and the founder of one of the first undercover police units in the early 19th century. To go «undercover» is to avoid detection by the entity one is observing, and especially to disguise one’s own identity or use an assumed identity for the purposes of gaining the trust of an individual or organization to learn or confirm confidential information or to gain the trust of targeted individuals in order to gather information or evidence. Vidocq personally trained his agents, for example, in selecting the correct disguise based on the kind of job. He himself still went out hunting for criminals too.
His memoirs are full of stories about how he outsmarted crooks by pretending to be a beggar or an old cuckold. At one point, he even simulated his own death. In England, the first modern police force was established in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel as the Metropolitan Police of London. From the start, the force occasionally employed plainclothes undercover detectives, but there was much public anxiety that these powers were being used for the purpose of political repression. Special Branch detectives on an undercover operation at the London Docks, 1911.
Law enforcement agencies elsewhere established similar Branches. There are two principal problems that can affect agents working in undercover roles. The first is the maintenance of identity and the second is the reintegration back into normal duty. Living a double life in a new environment presents many problems. Undercover work is one of the most stressful jobs a special agent can undertake. The largest cause of stress identified is the separation of an agent from friends, family and his normal environment. This simple isolation can lead to depression and anxiety.
There is no data on the divorce rates of agents, but strain on relationships does occur. Stress can also result from an apparent lack of direction of the investigation or not knowing when it will end. The amount of elaborate planning, risk, and expenditure can pressure an agent to succeed, which can cause considerable stress. This stress may be instrumental in the development of drug or alcohol abuse in some agents. They are more prone to the development of an addiction as they suffer greater stress than other police, they are isolated, and drugs are often very accessible. There can be some guilt associated with going undercover due to betraying those who have come to trust the officer.
This can cause anxiety or even, in very rare cases, sympathy with those being targeted. This is especially true with the infiltration of political groups, as often the agent will share similar characteristics with those they are infiltrating like class, age, ethnicity or religion. This could even result in the conversion of some agents. The lifestyle led by undercover agents is very different compared to other areas in law enforcement, and it can be quite difficult to reintegrate back into normal duties.
Agents work their own hours, they are removed from direct supervisory monitoring, and they can ignore the dress and etiquette rules. So resettling back into the normal police role requires the shedding of old habits, language and dress. Undercover agents should not be confused with law enforcement officers who wear plainclothes. This method is used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Sometimes, police might drive an unmarked vehicle or a vehicle which looks like a taxi. Government agents enticed targeted victims and incited them to commit crimes of a type and scale calculated to procure specific sentences, for which they would then be prosecuted and jailed, typically for around 15 years. Undercover officers infiltrating protest groups, deceived protesters into long-term relationships and in some cases, fathered children with them on false pretences, only to vanish later without explanation.