Plainclothes can be a tricky, often difficult, move for a police officer depending on the assignment or the agency. Most plainclothes assignments are more demanding and rely on the officer being disciplined, self-motivated and have the highest degree of trustworthiness. These assignments also rely on the officer’s being highly responsible and requiring less supervision than others.
Having been a plainclothes and detective supervisor for most of my career, I recognize that not all police officers are cut out for the change. Some plainclothes assignments rely on the officer’s ability to be covert and others rely on the officer’s ability to adapt to a variety of situations.
WHAT ARE PLAINCLOTHES ASSIGNMENTS?
Plainclothes assignments can mean a variety of duties to many agencies but the agency with the most variety is undoubtedly my former agency, the NYPD.
While the NYPD clearly delineates between plainclothes assignments, investigative assignments and undercover assignments, many other agencies do not. That is based, mostly, on the fact that the NYPD is an enormous police agency and there is so much specialization of assignments.
I personally believe there is a great difference between working in an undercover capacity and working in a plainclothes detail as an investigator or enforcement officer. To better illustrate the differences, I will first describe the varied categories of typical police assignments involving plainclothes work before discussing the problems and preparations for making the transition.
Street Crime Units, also called Anti-Crime Units are plainclothes units utilizing non-descript (sometimes) unmarked police vehicles where the officers are hand-picked because of their ability to be self-motivated and have previously shown consistent high arrest activity.
These officers are expected to make ‘observation’ self-initiated arrests involving robberies, burglaries, firearms, rapes, shootings, assaults or any violent crime.
In the NYPD, when I was working Precinct Anti-crime, it was discouraged and looked-down upon to make drug arrests because in New York City there are too many drug locations in the street. The plainclothes anti-crime officers were supposed to make observation felony violent crime arrests, especially gun collars.
The other reason behind the frowning upon drug arrests was the NYPD’s old misconception about making drug arrests can lead to corruption. It was an antiquated mentality left over from the Knapp Commission era i.e. Serpico’s time. In my opinion, hurt the effectiveness of the NYPD and its ability to effectively combat crime back in the late 1970s through the early 1990s. Giuliani and Bratton changed those policies.
Gang Units, in my opinion, should be working strictly plainclothes because all their work is on the streets. For the gang unit to be fully effective and successful, I believe they will have to follow gang members, observe drug sales by gang members, occasionally conduct decoy operations in gang areas and conduct investigations on these gangs. Intelligence, stealth and a proactive posture should be the modus operandi of any gang unit, regardless of size.
Decoy Units consist of plainclothes officers who work high-crime areas and pose as potential victims of crimes, such as robbery, rape, larceny and pick-pocketing. These are crimes in which a victim is directly approached by a criminal. These units involve one or more officers acting like commuters, shoppers, drunks or anyone who can make a desirable victim to a street criminal while plainclothes back-up teams are blending into the area and ready to swoop down on the perpetrator in seconds as well as protect the decoy officer.
Investigative units are those units that may involve the necessity for the officers to work in plainclothes, often referred to as soft clothes (jeans and sneakers) rather than business attire (suit and tie), to conduct investigations in a more efficient and covert manner when necessary. These investigative units are robbery investigation, auto crime investigation, pickpocket units, burglary units, prostitution and narcotics units.
Undercover officers are those officers who will be working only in an undercover capacity for the duration of his or her assignment. These assignments typically involve the undercover purchase of drugs, illegal firearms, prostitution and stolen property or the reverse sales of any contraband.
Undercover officers should be issued fictitious identification and have their fictitious and own personal information ‘flagged’ in the system for protection. Undercover officers should never perform uniformed duties in the area they will be performing undercover duties.
This is the area where many agencies make serious mistakes with undercover deployment.
During the five-day undercover school at the Northeast Counterdrug Training Center in Pennsylvania, I had occasion to instruct an experienced undercover officer from the northeast on undercover tactics and safety protocols. The officer made me cringe when he told me how he works uniform patrol during an 8Am to 4Pm tour and then works a 4Pm to Midnight shift as an undercover officer to buy drugs in the same county. I told him to never do that again!
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Deep cover officers, although rare among most agencies due to manpower and cost, involve an officer taking on the persona of someone for a long period of time. They usually act as a drug buyer, drug dealer, firearms buyer, firearms dealer, terrorist or other criminal, for the purpose of infiltrating a criminal group like organized crime. There are some deep cover officers who have had to remain ‘in cover’ for years throughout their entire career.
Deep cover assignments should be utilized sparingly and in the most necessary of situations. Only those most disciplined undercover officers should be involved in such an assignment. It has damaged so many officers’ personal lives and left many with psychological problems.
REQUIRED TRAITS FOR PLAINCLOTHES OFFICERS
Plainclothes officers should have traits beyond those normally displayed by uniformed officers. Uniformed officers must have integrity and be trustworthy. But, a plainclothes officer must have proven to have a higher degree of integrity because he or she will be required to handle ‘buy or cover money.’ He may be exposed to situations that may involve large amounts of seized drugs and cash.
Plainclothes officers should be ambitious and self-motivated. Plainclothes operations often involve which that depends upon an officer’s own initiation and personal observations. They must be discerning enough to avoid acting on less significant offenses like traffic and minor criminal offenses while performing specified plainclothes duties.
Plainclothes officers must also remember, they are not in uniform anymore. People may not know who they are even when properly identified by badge and identification. Therefore, plainclothes officers must have patience for the people who may not easily recognize their identity during official actions.
Plainclothes officers must be conscientious about assignments and be a team player. They will quickly learn that most plainclothes assignments involve working with a team of officers or operating using a module concept.
PROTOCOLS AND PROCEDURES
The CONFRONTATION POLICY & PROCEDURE is one of the most important issues that must be taught to every plainclothes officer and supervisor. It addresses, what should a plainclothes officer do when confronted by uniformed officers from their own agency or from another agency.
It is critical that this policy be clearly understood by all plainclothes officers. Issues at hand:
- How should the plainclothes officer act in the presence of uniformed officers?
- What should he say?
- How should the plainclothes officer react to being confronted by a uniformed officer who may, or may not, understand that he is actually a police officer?
- How does he show he is an officer?
- Does the plainclothes officer have adequate law enforcement identification?
The answers are the actual detailed procedure that must be followed in a confrontation situation. These policies and procedures must be taught and strictly followed by all plainclothes officers, everywhere.
There have been far too many Blue-on-Blue tragedies where a plainclothes officer was confronted by a uniformed police officer, or other plainclothes officers, where the result was deadly. Every agency should adopt an effective and safe confrontation policy used by all officers to help avoid future tragedies of this kind.
OFFICER SAFETY IS JOB ONE!
As I always told my officers in plainclothes assignments, whether street crime, gang unit or undercover, “If we can’t do it safely, we don’t do it at all!” This is especially important in plainclothes assignments for multiple reasons.
- First, most plainclothes work is self-initiated. Therefore, officers have the ability to opt-out of a specific action if it presents too great a risk to life and limb.
- Second, working plainclothes brings a unique aspect of danger. Most officers outside the plainclothes unit may not know or recognize the plainclothes officers they will encounter during a police action. That makes some operations that much more dangerous.
- Third, but not least important is that plainclothes officers mainly deal with violent street criminals, armed criminals, crimes in progress, undercover operations and numerous arrest situations.
When officers are dealing with such dangerous situations, safety must be Job One!
Plainclothes tactics can range from traffic stops to felony vehicle takedowns, armed suspect apprehensions and undercover drug purchases. The tactics that are used by the majority of plainclothes officers include, but are not limited to, blending techniques, surveillance tactics, the felony field interview technique and street narcotics apprehension.
Plainclothes officers need to be very adept at stalking criminals and remaining anonymous to the streets. The more effective their tactics, the more adept they can be at identifying crimes in progress, apprehending criminals and conducting safe operations.
Sometimes, in plainclothes involves the things that officers don’t do that makes the effort more efficient and safer. For example, during decoy and undercover operations officers must never make an arrest from an undercover posture. That is the job of the back-up teams.
If undercover officers attempt to make an arrest while acting in an undercover capacity, they can only cause the perp to think that the approach by a man with a gun that just did a deal is a rip-off by another bad guy rather than an arrest by a police officer.
Training is an extremely important facet of plainclothes transitioning and should be a requirement before any officer who is transferred into a plainclothes assignment.
Training for plainclothes officers should be multifaceted and intense. The purpose is to lock in the objectives of the training and ensure officers fully understand and carry-out the responsibilities and tactics of plainclothes assignments. Training should include:
- Blending techniques
- Static and foot surveillance techniques
- Arrest and takedown procedures during plainclothes operations
- Confrontation protocols and tactics
- Emergency operation of non-descript vehicles
- Decoy tactics and
- When undercover operations are part of the plainclothes assignment, undercover training
The training should be conducted by a team of officers and supervisors who have a wealth of experience and success conducting plainclothes operations.
A common mistake that some plainclothes officers make, especially in proactive assignments, is failure to carry proper equipment for the duty at hand. Since most plainclothes assignments involve arrest situations, officers must carry police identification and produce it quickly.
The NYPD requires plainclothes officers (not undercovers) to carry their shield and ID card at all times. The best way to identify oneself as a police officer is to wear a shield (badge) on a chain around your neck so it can be exhibited in front of your chest at a moment’s notice.
A badge holder on the belt is good for suit-and-tie detectives, not plainclothes assignments. The belt badge holders tend to fall to the ground during foot surveillance and physical arrest situations plus they are not readily visible in a confrontation situation. A plainclothes officer surely doesn’t want to be reaching toward his belt to show his badge during a confrontation with another armed officer.
In addition, proper identification equipment, arrest situations require handcuffs. I always felt better carrying at least two pairs of handcuffs rather than one. And I always kept two more pairs in my ‘Tac Bag’ in the car.
Another mistake I have seen is officers carrying small handguns, like off-duty weapons, as their primary duty weapon. It is great idea for many reasons to carry your service weapon as your primary duty weapon during plainclothes assignments. In addition to being a better shot and probably having more rounds available with your service weapon, you are more identifiable as a police officer with the service weapon rather than some exotic tiny handgun you carry only for concealment. Use a small gun as your ‘concealed’ or ‘not concealed’ backup gun during plainclothes assignments.
One of the most common problems associated with the transition from plainclothes assignments is identity. Many officers either forget they are working plainclothes that they are and are required to blend in with the general public. Other officers seem to have the need to show their identity as an officer too often – or at inappropriate times.
I recall an incident as the gang unit supervisor in which we were conducting surveillance of a violent street gang suspected of committing a series of armed street robberies near subway stations. The gang members were robbing unsuspecting commuters as they returned home to their Brooklyn neighborhood from Manhattan.
As the commuters exited the subway station, the gang members would choose their victim and follow the victim down dark streets awaiting the opportune moment and location to commit the stick-up.
One night, while conducting a surveillance, a newer member who had just transitioned from uniformed patrol into the gang unit noticed a group of graffiti vandals spray painting their tags on the side of a local business that was right in the middle of our foot surveillance.
We were stalking the gang members who were following a potential victim, but the newer officer shouted in a not-so-loud voice to the vandals “Police, Cut that Out!” The vandals, of course, shouted loudly, “Five-OH! Run!”
The vandals took off running. In addition the gang members who we were following their intended victim run away from us in a different direction. We ended up in a foot chase. While we caught all the gang members, we did not recover any guns nor did we get a chance to catch them in the act of robbery.
Needless to say, the new officer immediately learned a valuable and costly lesson. He blew our surveillance. He compromised our cover and put us in danger. And he may have placed the victim in danger, as well.
I didn’t have to say anything else.
In conclusion, plainclothes assignments, whatever the category, are not for everyone. These assignments call for street smarts, common sense, integrity and reliability. They require discipline and the ability to leave the uniform identity behind during operations.
Plainclothes officers should be carefully chosen volunteers who are mature and ambitious. Making the transition should be carefully monitored by supervisors and be preceded by specially designed training provided by experienced plainclothes officers and supervisors.
At the bottom line, it’s all about saving just ONE life.
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