The public is often intrigued by the exploits of undercover police officers. While the media has romanticized this profession, the police officers that perform undercover work are among the hardest working, most capable and courageous in the law enforcement community. These officers must infiltrate organizations that are highly resistant to outsiders, and then obtain evidence or intelligence that can be used to dismantle the network. Undercover police officers must tread the line between impersonating members of criminal organizations while still retaining their identity as police officers.
Undercover Police Officer Job Description
Undercover police jobs often require officers to fulfill these duties:
- Learn the speech patterns and cultural norms of criminal organizations
- Present themselves as criminals without engaging in illicit activity
- Gather evidence to prosecute leaders and henchmen
- Establish a reputation in the organization
- Alert police to impending operations or objectives
- Maintain criminal appearance on a continual basis
- Testify in court about witnessed crimes
Undercover Training Standards and Experience Requirements
The police department selection process for undercover police jobs will include an intensive background check, oral interview and polygraph examination. Although undercover police officers may be exposed to criminal activity, they are not usually permitted to have committed any serious crimes in their own past. If hired, new recruits must complete a demanding training program at the police academy that will provide an educational and physical training foundation for the officer’s career.
New police academy graduates are typically required to serve as a uniformed patrol officer for at least two to three years. After this probationary period, some organizations allow officers to request undercover duties. Other organizations expect officers to spend more time on the job to acquire familiarity with the local criminal network and undercover police procedures. In a few cases, recruits may obtain undercover assignments directly out of the academy to prevent any criminals from recognizing them as law enforcement officers.
The advanced training necessary to operate within criminal organizations often come from veteran police officers who have already infiltrated similar groups. These instructors provide a wide variety of techniques designed to circumvent the elaborate detection methods that some organizations use to remain clandestine. This may involve instruction in local youth culture, vocabulary and dialogue, and methods to acquire evidence.
Undercover Police Officer Salary
Undercover police officers may hold the rank of law enforcement officer or detective, but in all cases, they will have quite a bit of experience in the field of policing and investigations before being put on an undercover assignment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), detectives and criminal investigators earned an average salary of $90,370 as of May 2021. Early career professionals earned about $61,600, while those with significant experience and/or those working for major regional or state agencies earned about $146,830 during this time.
How to Become an Undercover Police Officer
The first step to becoming an undercover police officer is to prepare for the challenging application process required by law enforcement agencies. This process involves a series of physical evaluations that test candidates’ stamina, strength and/or flexibility. There is also an academic component. While most police departments require a minimum of a high school diploma, to understand the criminal mind well enough to work in the extremely challenging criminal underworld, prospective undercover police officers are strongly encouraged to obtain at least a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures for detectives and criminal investigators. Job growth projections from the US Department of Labor-sponsored resource, Projections Central. Figures are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed August 2022.