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 solve.
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 jurisdiction.
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.
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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.
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.
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 yelling..."POLICE!"
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.