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I’ve always wondered how an undercover cop manages to deceive while still maintaining integrity. I don’t think I could do it. And I wanted to talk to someone that could. Interviewing an undercover cop was challenging. I was stood up a few times. There was no explanation as I sat drinking my coffee, alone, imagining my interviewee had been sucked into deep cover and was currently speaking with a Russian accent and wearing a wig. The truth was probably less exotic than that, but by the time I finally got to interview the undercover cop, I didn’t care anymore. He answered my questions openly and honestly. But I never did catch his name.

Did you always know you wanted to be a cop?
At the time I applied to be a cop, I was just really bored and burnt out on the job I had at the time. I began applying for different agencies and got hired by the Sheriff's Department. I did not always know I wanted to be a cop, I kind of just fell into it. I thought it would be exciting, which it is at times.

What’s it like to work undercover? Do you ever get found out?
Sometimes the person will confront you and ask if you are a cop. We’ll set up a deal and get pretty far into it but sometimes the suspect gets hinked and they won’t believe me when I say no, I’m not a cop. If they feel like something is off, they just won’t do the deal. Then we lose them.

The point is to get the bigger fish. If I pinch someone for drugs, I’m really after their supplier. I want to get more information so we can give them marked money or set them up with a wire. If I can watch a deal go down, that person is automatically busted. And they owe me three deals.

Three deals?
Any person we bust on possession has the option of doing three buys for us, all with different suppliers we hope, and in exchange we remove the felony charge. Most people go for the deal.

So, you’re basically making them go undercover?
Well, they don’t have to. They have a choice. But most people would rather wear a mic a couple of times than have a felony on their record and face jail time. We tell them where, when, how and how much of the dope we want and what kind.

Do you hide out like they do in the movies?
Let’s say we tell them to meet their supplier in the parking lot of the fast food joint down the street. We’ll tell them to get one ounce and meet in an hour. Then we’ll have a team of six undercover cops in unmarked plain vehicles waiting there and we’ll do the surveillance from a distance. We’ll see the suspect come into the parking lot and we’ll watch the transaction happen. And then we’ll let him leave as we call in all his identifying information to the cop down the street in the patrol vehicle and he’ll be the one to pull him over and take him in.

How long have you been working undercover?
I’ve been a cop for nine years and worked undercover for this past year. This is the best job I’ve had in the department. But, even when I worked patrol, that was so much fun because you’re surrounded by a bunch of good guys and there is a great camaraderie.

Does anything funny ever happen on the job?
All the time. One night we pulled over a car for drunk driving. The married woman who was driving happened to be in the car with her boyfriend. She had been drinking so much that she begged us to let her use the bathroom on the side of the road before she took her sobriety test. We finally let her and her boyfriend held his jacket up to cover her so she’d have some privacy but he was drunk, too, and only held the jacket low enough to cover her face. We had front row seats to watch her defecate on the side of the road next to the freeway. People that are drunk do dumb things.

Were you ever busted for anything?
When I was sixteen I took a tube of Chapstick. I don’t even know why I did it because I remember I had money for it in my pocket. I suppose it was a crime of opportunity. I was caught up in the moment but when you look back you think man, that was dumb, because you think about the consequences and the humiliation you would have faced if you had been caught. It wouldn’t have been worth it. I was always so afraid of getting caught that I was never brave enough to do anything worse. My parents put the fear of God in me.

Oh, and when I was 4 I took a candy bar from the grocery store. I started eating it in the back seat on the way home. My mom asked me where I got it and then turned the car around and marched me back inside to apologize. My mom paid for the candy bar but I paid for it in humiliation.

Having been in even just a little bit of trouble, is it easier to feel compassion for the people you’re busting? Do you feel bad you are lying to them to bust them?
You try to be compassionate for the people you are busting, but at the same time, you realize they’re dirt bags and they are committing crimes. Narc officers will get moved to a new location and given a fake name, change their look and their voice and they do whatever they have to do to catch the criminals. No. I don’t feel bad lying to criminals.

There are times when you’ll feel compassionate for someone when, say, a homeless guy goes into a store and steals food. You know he’s only doing it because he’s hungry. But you know when someone is stealing from a department store where they go in and steal five pairs of jeans and walk out? They are professional criminals and I don’t have much compassion for them.

There are tons of drunk drivers and they crash their car into the pole or something and you sometimes feel a little bad for them. 75 percent of people in America have probably gone too a party, had too much to drink and then driven home. But then sometimes they kill a family and you instantly lose all that compassion.

Do you ever get scared?
When I worked patrol I would sometimes work in the mountains. One night I saw a small SUV around 10:30 at night sitting along the side of the road. Something just didn’t feel right, you know? I pulled up behind them to check it out and suddenly they took off and jumped back on the road without turning their lights on. I pursued them and as they rounded a corner to get on the freeway, an AK47 comes out the window. When backup came and we finally got them pulled over we found two loaded guns and four Armenian mafia guys who we had interrupted from doing a hostile drug deal in a second car we didn’t see up in the mountains.

Situations like that get your adrenaline pumping. You can sometimes get a little shaky but you keep it together because it can mean life or death. When I’m training someone new and they freeze up in stressful situations like that I have to wonder if they are really cut out for the job. It’s not their fault if they aren’t, but you don’t want them to get themselves or someone else killed.

Leah Peterson

Leah Peterson does interviews for print, text and video. She crafts, shoots photos, paints, writes and is generally up to something at all times. You can find out more than you ever wanted to know about her at leahpeah.com. Leah is made from 100% recycled materials.

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