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The Art of Darkness: Keys to
Part 1 of a 2-part series by Charles
As a PhD with a background in human performance
studies, anthropologist Sara K. Schneider was curious about how
officers assuming false identities for undercover work manage to pull
off their deception.
Across several years, she interviewed undercover operatives and
instructors, attended training courses, and researched what experts on
covert operations have written about the craft. The result is an
intriguing new book of her own, Art
of Darkness, published by Cuneiform Books in Chicago.
In its 267 pages, Schneider, who expresses a life-long affinity for
police and police work, explores the techniques by which an undercover
operator "prepares and lives out a highly volatile triple secret: what
his true identity is, that an investigation is going on, and that he is
a part of it." And, perhaps most important, how the officer survives
while unmasking the secrets of his target without having his own
Topics she covers include, among others, "The Undercover Cover Story,"
"Being Good at Being Bad," "The Artifacts of Identity," and "Identity
Breakdown." While not a how-to text per se, her reports on undercover
techniques provide a good overview orientation for anyone who's headed
into the undercover world or wants insights into its ways.
Such assignments range widely from simple, single-shift decoy work to
long and complex deep-cover investigations. "How elaborate your false
identity has to be depends on the degree of distrust you're likely to
encounter," Schneider says. "If you're after people who are openly and
carelessly selling drugs, your undercover persona can be very light.
But for some very complicated investigations, you may have to
essentially create another
Drawing from an exclusive interview with PoliceOne and from her book,
here are some key guidelines about the practical side of undercover
"acting" as she sees it, adaptable to the kinds of challenges your
criminal audience presents.
1. Understand your career risks.
As glamorous as undercover work may seem, it can come freighted with
"very real" professional hazards, Schneider warns, and you need to be
aware of these as well as of your physical risks.
Uniformed cops and brass "commonly regard undercovers with suspicion,"
she says. From your associations in the criminal world, you may be
stigmatized "as permanently dangerous to those more comfortable with
conventional policing. Even though you may draw accolades on the
surface, there can be a lingering, underlying mistrust when the job is
Nevertheless, by maintaining high performance standards in other
assignments, as well as while they're undercover, many officers have
overcome this damaging stereotyping and have advanced, with undercover
work adding important diversity to their professional foundation.
2. Build the right truths into your
When you're working undercover, the false identity you craft needs
notonly to advance the goals of your investigation but "to protect your
very life," Schneider says. "A good cover story seamlessly blends true
elements of your own background with new elements that relate to the
type of case you're trying to build. Two properties govern:
plausibility and coherence. Is your false identity believable and is
every aspect of it consistent with every other aspect?"
In choosing a name, an occupation and a geographic history in order to
build your relationship with a target, Schneider stresses the
importance of the K.I.S.S. principle. It may be best to change your
last name but keep your first, so if you encounter someone you know and
he calls out your name your instinctive head turn won't be a giveaway.
Keeping your own initials also lessens the chances of a slip-up.
"In addition, your body has to substantiate any claims made," Schneider
points out. "Don't say you're a bricklayer if you don't have calluses
on your hands; don't say you're a competitive swimmer if you have hair
on your legs." Don't try to fake your work history or knowledge. She
quotes one undercover trainer: "Whatever you've done in the past is
your identity." Otherwise questions you can't answer properly could
unravel your fakery fast. The same holds true in constructing your
geographical background. Be familiar with the places you claim you've
Adding avocational elements may strengthen your story's credibility.
Again, draw on your own hobbies. "In that sense," Schneider says,
"you're simultaneously not yourself and not not yourself."
Like any good actor, appreciate the value of props. "Prop your wallet
with fake junk IDs that add credibility: video rental cards, phone
numbers of made-up friends, rental receipts for postal boxes,"
Schneider suggests. And, of course, remove any incriminating documents
that relate to your real life.
"It's vital for a cop's safety to assume that any sort of research he
can run on a bad guy can also be run on him, so he must backstop with
internally consistent data on any legal, financial, or historical
claims he makes," Schneider writes.
3. Believe in yourself in your role.
In one of the classes Schneider attended, trainees were introduced to
an exercise called "put up or shut up." The instructor, playing a bad
guy, approached a student and "spoke to her as if she were a
prostitute. The student accepted the role. He threw a wad of bills
across the desk at her as payment for a sexual act he demanded. She
backed down," instantly jeopardizing the credibility of her purported
Lesson learned: In presenting a false identity, "one must only make
claims that one is willing to play all the way," Schneider writes.
"When you're undercover," she points out, "you may survive only if your
false identity does. Unlike a stage actor, who's playing for an
audience that wants him to succeed and is willing to suspend its
disbelief, you're playing for a criminal audience that's
hyper-suspiciously looking for something wrong in your performance, for
any hint that you're not the real thing." As renowned DEA undercover
Michael Levine once put it, "One slip, one error of judgment, and
[your] audience won't just take a walk at
intermission. They'll probably blow [your] fucking brains out."
"Your assumed role has to be so well embedded in your mind and memory
that you virtually believe it yourself," Schneider says. She cites one
agent who writes out everything he "knows" about his fake identity,
then reviews the document every day until "thorough, deep memorization"
ensures that his story is coherent and that he can answer any questions
or challenges "fluidly and naturally."
Before you play your role for real, have a partner rehearse you with
any and all questions he can think of that a bad guy might ask that
would test your authenticity.
The value of in-depth preparation was vividly impressed on an
undercover who presented himself as a caterer to a major drug
trafficker whose daughter happened to be planning a wedding. "When the
bad guy started asking for advice about where he should hold the
wedding, the narc was ready with props and research," Schneider writes.
"He took out a pad and pen and asked detailed questions: How many
guests did he want to have? How much did he want to spend per head?
Would he want the caterer to hire the band?
"Within 45 minutes, the trafficker had taken the narc into his bedroom
and shown him his pilot logs and manifests for his buying trips to
Colombia and Bolivia. Within a week, he had fronted him nine kilos of
Keep in mind, though, that no matter how painstaking your groundwork,
"the bad guy will pose unanticipated tests of identity," Schneider
writes, and you will "need to save your life by improvising."
4. Develop your gift of gab—and
"High-achieving undercover officers tend to be good talkers who can
start and smoothly carry on conversations with new people with ease,"
Schneider observes. In short: good bullshitters.
"Undercover agents talk for their lives," Schneider says. Your ability
to keep language flowing, regardless of its content or of the setting
("talking the talk"), can help convince others of the validity of your
false identity. "If you're shy, self-doubting, unable to think flexibly
under rapidly evolving circumstances, you're not likely to succeed,"
"The ideal undercover is gifted at 'roping,' or steering a suspect to
reveal pertinent information without his ever knowing he's doing it."
One field training exercise designed to cultivate this skill is to
approach a same-sex shopper at a mall and from this "cold" contact
obtain his/her name, address, educational background, work history,
family information, and the make, model, and license number of his
If you get good at this, one operative told Schneider, your mark "will
never know he was had because you'll talk about so many other things"
in the process of covertly interviewing him.
On the flip side, "knowing when to hold back rather than talk is a more
rarely thought-of skill, though it may be the one that saves,"
Schneider says. She quotes the versatile FBI undercover Sal Vizzini,
who was targeting a heavy-hitting Mafia thug: "I had to remind myself
above all to shut up. One of the hardest cons is saying nothing at
all…. If you want to give the impression of being cool, the less you
say the better. Don't over-explain."
Schneider notes: "Conversation must be steered very carefully, or it
can be the pin-prick to your carefully concealed cover."
5. Control informants.
Informants can make or break an undercover operation—and they can be
dangerous to you as well as critically helpful because their loyalty
can shift from moment to moment, depending on how they perceive their
personal benefits. Schneider says it's important to exercise "power
rituals" to remind informants of their necessarily inferior status and
to protect yourself. "Trusting them is inevitably charged with risk,"
They need to be "searched for drugs and weapons each time" they meet
with you. Try to control where you meet, "to help things go your way."
A public place or a street corner or park may permit a surveillance
team to "do a better job," for example. "If you use the informant's car
because it's the one the bad guy expects, you drive. Otherwise you're
the informant's hostage." To the extent possible, the same rules apply
in dealing with targets.
"If something doesn't feel right, even if you can't put your finger on
what it is, don't go forward with it," Schneider advises. A high degree
of suspicion about submitting to the control of others in order to get
an incriminating deal done will likely strike the illicit parties as
perfectly normal, because they are probably highly suspicious, too.
Says Robert Stasch, a Chicago PD lieutenant who, as an instructor of
undercover tactics, was one of Schneider's research consultants: "Your
willingness to walk away is going to be all the more believable because
of the tendency of many cops to be overeager."
"A lot of these worms [informants] can be likeable," one experienced
undercover admits. "Manage—don't befriend—them," Schneider says. They
shouldn't know where you live. If you see them when you're with a
family member, out of your undercover role, avoid them. And "never
become comfortable enough around them that you let your guard down and
reveal something they could use to exploit you." Through careless
comments, you don't want to become "a virtual pipeline of information
to the underworld about police practices and procedures, thus
potentially jeopardizing not just yourself but also the safety of
6. Be patient.
"Don't rush your transactions," Schneider cautions. "A lot of officers
blow an operation by trying to build a relationship too fast, instead
of letting it evolve at a rate the bad guy expects. An aggressive
'sales' technique often backfires, and you become easily recognized as
someone who wants something he shouldn't have."
In her book, she quotes one of the most famous undercovers, "Donnie
Brasco": "You push a little here and there, but very gently. Brief
introductions, short conversations, appearances one place and another,
hints about what you're up to, casual mannerisms, demeanor, and lingo
that shows you know your way around—all these become a trail of
"The quickest way to get tagged as a cop is to move too fast. You have
to show that you have the time to play it by the rules of the street,
and that includes letting people check you out and come to you."
One tactic for demonstrating a reassuring patience is calculated
inattentiveness. Again, quoting Brasco: "Occasionally I would change
the subject or wander away purposely, right in the middle of a
discussion about something criminal—precisely to suggest that I wasn't
Brasco also frequently appeared to be absorbed in reading newspapers
when lounging around with his targets, all the while listening
attentively to conversations he seemed to be uninterested in.
"Seeing when inaction is going to be the best long-term strategy
doesn't come naturally to most rookie undercovers," Schneider says,
"yet waiting can be the thing that saves your identity—and sometimes
NEXT: How to guard against identity breakdown, when the truth would
seal your doom. Plus: avoiding "going over," maintaining court
credibility, and successfully exiting your undercover role.
Dr. Schneider's book, Art of
Darkness, can be ordered at a discount through the publisher's
with permission from
PoliceOne. Sworn law enforcement officers can register for secured
access to the site by visiting www.policeone.com.
Contact author Sara K. Schneider for
police training: firstname.lastname@example.org.
More keys to undercover safety and success
Part 2 of a 2-part series by Charles
In her new book, Art of
Darkness, Dr. Sara K. Schneider, an anthropologist and
researcher of human performance, explores the psychology and techniques
that enable officers to work undercover—and survive. In Part 1 of this
series, she offered key tips for successful undercover operations,
ranging from how to construct a believable false identity to how to use
“calculated inattentiveness” to advance toward a bust that sticks.
Here are more of Schneider’s conclusions, drawn from her book and from
an exclusive interview with PoliceOne:
7. Guard against identity breakdown.
In Art of Darkness, Schneider
quotes a DEA deep-cover operative as telling a group of rookies,
“You’ve got to love the idea of flirting with death. In the middle of
everything, you’ve got to enjoy knowing that your life depends on your
ability to outthink the danger.”
That love and enjoyment—not to mention your thinking agility—will be
desperately put to the test if your false identity is challenged and
your life is really on the line because your targets have come to
suspect you’re a cop.
To reverse suspicion and reinforce that you are who you aren’t,
Schneider cites three basic response techniques, first identified by
sociologist Bruce Jacobs: admit the truth in such a sarcastic way that
it constitutes a convincing refutation…offer up persuasive “evidence”
supporting your false identity and demonstrating the “impossibility”
that you’re an officer….or seize the offensive and deliver an
intimidating belligerent denial or threatening retort.
“Sarcastic admission is often the smartest strategy for opposing an
accusation that seems only half-meant,” she suggests. “The more
aggressive indignant approach may involve turning the tables and
throwing the accusation of being a cop back onto the bad guy, and see
how he responds.
“In any case, you need to judge instantaneously which technique would
be most effective, given the seriousness of the accusation, how many
accusers are involved, the group dynamics, how many neutral observers
are available to be swayed, and so on.”
In extreme cases, your “preparedness to suffer physically may be what
keeps you alive,” Schneider says. When one group of criminals accused
one undercover of a police affiliation, they tortured him by repeatedly
closing a door on his hand. He suffered three broken bones and a
fractured knuckle, and eventually passed out, but he kept his cool. One
of his adversaries told him later, a cop “would have cracked and
revealed himself. Now we know we can trust you.”
Even after you’re convinced you’ve won over your targets, stay alert
and remain cautious. “Don’t let success kill you,” Schneider warns.
There’s a temptation, she says, for undercovers to “play for a
secondary audience, their backup team. Showing off, they may try to
slip in-jokes past the bad guys to amuse their fellow officers, like
the Canadian operative who signed his commissioner’s name to a credit
card receipt for a deal.
“And, of course, you must conceal all signs of your professional
training. Officers must not, for example, stand like cops or use cop
jargon in their undercover roles.” She tells of a young female officer
who penetrated a high school drug ring by posing as a student. When one
of her targets accused her of being a narc, she tried to defuse the
situation with humor by telling him to “assume the position” against a
wall and burlesquing an arrest. He did everything except spread his
legs apart, so she “kicked them really hard from the inside, like they
taught us in the academy. From that point on, he knew I was a cop.”
8. Watch for signs of “going over.”
Quoting an expert source in her book, Schneider says of undercover
work: “You cannot check out the sly scums of the earth that prey on
innocent people by being a goodie two-shoes. You have to think like
them, sound like them and smell like them.”
“The risk is that you may, eventually, be like them,” she says. “You
may find you like some aspects of the ‘bad’ life. You may find that
your new peer group of criminals is more reinforcing than your old
group of cops. You may be so enamored with your role that the acting
itself becomes more of a draw than the investigative aspect. Or you may
forget your mission and start thinking that your targets aren’t such
bad people after all. At the very least, you may exhibit some of the
habits and thinking of your false identity even when you’re off-duty,
much the way a stage actor over time absorbs traits of the character he
or she plays.”
You’re most likely to keep your “social reality” straight if you are
able to maintain regular contact with family and friends and have a
“supportive compatibility” with your law enforcement team.
“If your customary loyalty hierarchy starts to erode, you’re in
danger,” Schneider says. She points out that a “standard judgment by a
police officer about whom to protect” starts with himself, then expands
to include, in order of importance, his partner, then other cops, then
civilians and—in last place—the scumbags, whose needs are protected
only after all others’ have been dealt with.
“When the positions in this hierarchy start to turn inside out, and the
bad guys become the first to be protected, it’s a sure sign that you’re
misidentifying. To help guard against that, you should remind yourself
on a daily basis that the purpose of your undercover work is to promote
the welfare of society” and, as one officer puts it, “to defend the
good against the bad and vicious.”
9. Keep court credibility in mind.
“You must be careful that the gestures you perform in order to build
credibility with the bad guy don’t end up compromising your credibility
or appeal to civilian jurors,” she says. One undercover, for example,
thought it would be “well within the character of his false identity to
urinate against a wall. But that didn’t set well with the naïve
jurors who heard his case.
“Keeping clean—or clean-looking—requires a delicate, three-way
balancing act,” Schneider explains. “You must make canny decisions in
your investigator’s role, while credibly maintaining your false persona
and also conserving the credibility of your real self, the law
enforcement officer who will testify in court.”
It’s a lot to handle, she concedes. Those who pull it off seem able to
develop a “detached intelligence”—the ability to imagine themselves as
a disinterested fourth party who views the scenes and calls the shots
much as a director would do in guiding actors in a movie.
10. Successfully exit your role.
Schneider quotes a DEA agent regarding an undercover assignment: “You
gotta live it, you gotta love it, you gotta leave it.” Washing yourself
clean of your false identity is not always an easy process, she says,
especially if you’ve been in deep cover, role-playing 24/7 for an
extended period of time.
Transitioning back into your “primary reality” may involve “letting go
of the occupational perks that went along with the work.” It may
require healing marital or other relational strains. Long absences,
evasiveness, and over-involvement in the role “can make havoc of family
life,” Schneider says, “but the undercover may have lost his or her
ability to perceive this.”
Almost certainly you will need to work on distancing yourself “from the
physicality, mannerisms and manners that were associated with your
trick role.” Schneider quotes the wife (now the ex-wife) of a long-term
undercover: During his transitional period, “every situation he was in,
every person he met, had to be mastered in one way or another….And it
wasn’t enough to rise to a challenge now and again. He had to do it
every day. Twice a day.”
Back on duty, you may find conventional assignments boringly mundane.
You may need to guard against “an inflated ego, an exaggerated sense of
importance, a spurious sense of entitlement,” even some rejection from
your fellow officers.
One state police agency requires that returning undercovers go through
a week-long debriefing that involves the help of experienced
“transitioned” officers. Other departments make psychological services
available to aid an undercover’s transition back.
Keep in mind that the insights you gained into the criminal world and
the skills you honed as an undercover can significantly strengthen your
effectiveness as a uniformed officer or detective. But anticipate some
potentially embarrassing relapses.
One officer failed to shed his character persona sufficiently before
accompanying his wife to her parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner,
Schneider reports. After his in-laws’ minister gave the prayer, the
officer boomed out: “Now, will somebody please pass the motherfuckin’
turkey? I’m hungry!”
From her research, Schneider concludes that one aspect of undercover
training that’s often short-changed is acting. “So much time is spent
on devising scenarios, the legal issues, the mechanics of setting up an
operation, the trappings of establishing a character and so on that
there’s not much training in the actual skill of role-playing,” she
says. “Officers tend to pick up important elements of acting—like
movement, facial expression, the use of personal space—as they work.
But leaving all that to on-the-job training can be costly.”
Drawing on her background in theatrical performance training, she’d
like to work with undercover training programs to enhance officers’
acting skills. “It’s a gap that’s important to close,” she says.
Schneider can be reached at: email@example.com.
with permission from
PoliceOne. Sworn law enforcement officers can register for secured
access to the site by visiting www.policeone.com.
Contact author Sara K. Schneider for
police training: firstname.lastname@example.org.