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