Police departments used to be very
sparing in their use of plainclothes
officers.  Aside from detectives, who
generally looked like detectives,
plainclothes assignments were limited.

What you shouldn't be expected to
know, but what police administrators
should know, is that plainclothes
assignments are generally inefficient, and
they can create more problems than they

You probably haven't given this much, if
any, thought, but how many times have
you seen a plainclothes police officer
working by him or herself?  The answer
is, you won't.  Now, how often do you
see a uniformed police officer working by
him or herself.  The answer...frequently.

Whether anyone realizes it or not, the
uniform has a tremendous psychological
impact.  It clearly identifies the police
officer as a police officer, and it conveys
the authority possessed by the police
officer.  On the other hand, a person
dressed like everyone else doesn't
convey anything except, perhaps, the
officer's taste in clothes.  Even with
identification -- showing the badge -- the
presence of a second officer is required
to make most people more susceptible to
believing who you say you are.

Now, imagine yourself as a newly trained
police officer.  You're off duty, and you're
driving through a relatively high crime
area of a neighboring jurisdiction.  As
you sit at a red light, a man approaches
your driver's door. He points a handgun
at you with one hand as he holds out a
badge in the other hand.  He shouts,
"Police," and he orders you to "exit your
vehicle." He's dressed down like a lot of
plainclothes officers, and the "police" and
"exit your vehicle" commands sound
good.  But...since you're a police officer,
you're familiar with the police badge in
this jurisdiction.  While it's similar in
appearance, you quickly realize it's not a
real police badge.  The handgun doesn't
fool you either.  It's a different type or
make carried by officers in that

While most people don't pay a lot of
attention to the designs of badges and
types of guns, cops do, so you know
you're dealing with a potentially deadly
situation involving a person(s) who is not
a police officer.  In this circumstance you
determine that you're probably dealing
with a carjacking.  You don't have a lot of
choices.  You could comply with his
orders and hope to get through the
robbery unharmed.  Of course, the
phony cop could decide to search you,
and he'd end up with another gun. You
could feign compliance.  As you exit your
car, you could draw your gun and shoot
the fool, before he realizes what's
happening.  My personal choice would be
to make a quick check of the
intersection...peddle to the metal while
getting as low in that seat to protect my
upper body and hope that any shots
fired will miss or be slowed down by the
car's body and seats.

The reason I cited this example is to
make you think about what any person
might feel when accosted in this manner
by anyone in plainclothes claiming to be a
police officer.  It's not a big deal when
you're accosting a real criminal, for he or
she is going to do whatever it is he or
she is going to do.  The criminals are just
as savvy at recognizing plainclothes cops
as cops themselves.  However, people
who are not accustomed to such
confrontations are unpredictable.  There
are any number of reasons for a law
abiding citizen to become involved with
police officers under stressful
circumstances.  In such situations, it
should be obvious that the uniform will
remove a lot of doubts from an already
stressful situation.
Today, many police departments are
developing a bad habit of deploying
plainclothes police officers for
enforcement activities where uniformed
police officers in marked patrol vehicles
would be better suited.  You'll know what
I'm talking about when you see a pair of
men standing in line at a carry-out
restaurant wearing bullet proof vests --
over their shirts -- with their holstered
handguns visible to all.  My favorite is the
tactical style holster that's attached
closer to the knee than the hip.  The
officers' badges may or may not be
visible.  Of course, the officers do make
an effort to be covert by skipping a
shave and wearing tattered clothing.

The truth is, there's not much
"undercover" when it comes to most
plainclothes police deployments.  Another
big misconception is the value of the
unmarked police vehicle.  The standard
unmarked police car doesn't fool any of
the people you're trying to fool.  The
ideal unmarked police car could be
obtained from the many cars and trucks
seized in drug cases.  This idea is
brought up often, but for a police
department to obtain the use of such
vehicles requires the cooperation of other
agencies responsible for the storage and
maintenance of such vehicles.  It's usually
too much trouble to go through all the
hoops to provide you with a truly covert
vehicle.  However, the high end models
frequently find their way into the
possession of high ranking members of
any number of government agencies...it's
called a "perk."

As plainclothes enforcement units
proliferate, particularly in larger police
departments, the plainclothes aspect is
taking on a new look.  The BDU (Battle
Dress Uniform) is becoming popular with
units that are supposed to be working in
plainclothes.  The BDU isn't really uniform
since officers like to make their own
alterations to fit their personal tastes.

When you hear about controversial, and
sometimes tragic, outcomes involving
police enforcement actions, you should
notice that most involve police officers
working in plainclothes assignments.  
You'll soon learn that when you take any
enforcement action as a police officer,
things can happen pretty quickly.  The
nice thing about the uniform -- the real
uniform -- is that you don't have to
worry about identifying yourself beyond
Years ago, undercover referred to police
officers who conducted investigations
posing as someone other than a police
officer.  Today, undercover can also be
applied to multitudes of plainclothes
police officers running around all over the
place.  Years ago, as today, new police
officers couldn't wait to get into
plainclothes assignments.  I wasn't any
different; however, thinking back on that
desire, I can't remember why it appealed
to me.
A uniformed officer is constantly exposed
to people approaching him or her for any
number of reasons.  This single
circumstance of frequent interruptions
would play havoc with the efficiency of
investigations.  While detectives can
certainly take police action when they
observe criminal activity, they're not
exposed to the multitude of duties as is
the uniformed police officer.

Aside from detectives, there is only one
legitimate use for plainclothes police
officers.  Undercover should mean
undercover.  Covert assignments can be
of long duration or short duration.  Short
duration simply means the police officers
are truly concealing their identity; until,
they're ready to perform an enforcement
action.  An obvious example of this is
when police officers are conducting drug
and vice enforcement activities.
You may ask, "What about detectives?  
Why couldn't a single uniformed police
officer perform the functions normally
done by a two person detective team?"  
The short answer is...yes, a uniformed
officer could; however, it would not be an
efficient way of doing investigations.  
First, the public is used to detectives who
are dressed neat and conservative
projecting a professional image.  
Detectives can go about their business,
interacting within any environment,
without people immediately recognizing
them as police officers.  When it comes
to investigations, the semi-undercover
status is beneficial.  There's another
important advantage.  Investigations can
become intricate and complicated.  When
two detectives work well together...two
heads are better than one.
"What you shouldn't be expected to
know, but what police administrators
should know, is that plainclothes
assignments are generally inefficient,
and they can create more problems
than they solve." ~ Barry M. Baker
Copyright © 2015  Barry M. Baker  

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