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September 2008

The Art of Darkness: Keys to surviving undercover

Part 1 of a 2-part series by Charles Remsberg

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 revealed.

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 over."

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 cover story.

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 been.

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 persona.

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 marijuana."

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 silence.

"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," Schneider says.

"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 vehicle.

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," she writes.

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 future operators."

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 credibility….

"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 particularly interested."

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 your life."

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 website:

Reprinted with permission from PoliceOne. Sworn law enforcement officers can register for secured access to the site by visiting

Buy now

Contact author Sara K. Schneider for police training:

More keys to undercover safety and success

Part 2 of a 2-part series by Charles Remsberg

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:

Reprinted with permission from PoliceOne. Sworn law enforcement officers can register for secured access to the site by visiting

Buy now

Contact author Sara K. Schneider for police training: