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Undercover: Police Surveillance in America

Gary T. Marx
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Providing a rich picture of past and present undercover work, and drawing on unpublished documents and interviews with the FBI and local police, this penetrating study examines the variety of undercover operations and the ethical issues and empirical assumptions raised when the state officially sanctions deception and trickery and allows its agents to participate in crime.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91004-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    M. J. Rossant

    The Abscam scandals drew public attention to the use of undercover agents. There is of course nothing new about this practice. It has in fact been around long enough to become a staple of fact and fiction. G. K. Chesterton had an undercover agent in hisThe Man Who Was Thursday.The New York Police Department had an undercover man on its force who infiltrated the so-called Black Hand Society around the turn of the century and was later assassinated. And the Federal Bureau of Investigation has at times been extremely well-represented in the Communist party.

    Nowadays covert action by...

  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xxvi)
  7. ONE The Changing Nature of Undercover Work
    (pp. 1-16)

    Undercover work has changed significantly in the United States in the past decade, expanding in scale and appearing in new forms. Covert tactics have been adopted by new users and directed at new targets and new offenses. Applying ingenuity previously associated only with fictional accounts, law enforcement agents have penetrated criminal and sometimes noncriminal milieus to an extraordinary degree. Even organized crime, long thought to be immune, has been infiltrated. (In a stellar performance, FBI agent Joe Pistone spent five years as a close associate of members of the Bonanno family.) The lone undercover worker making an isolated arrest has...

  8. TWO A Selective History of Undercover Practices
    (pp. 17-35)

    Contemporary undercover practices can be better understood by looking at them in a historical context and noting what social, legal, and technical factors affect them. I will describe some salient themes in the development of undercover practices focusing on the middle of the nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century.

    Deception, temptation, and informers are ancient and virtually universal forms of social control. The Bible is filled with examples—Eve and the serpent, God testing Abraham and Job, and Judas informing on Jesus. The devil has often been depicted as wearing angel’s clothes and talking sweetly. Plato wanted his guardians to...

  9. THREE The Current Context
    (pp. 36-59)

    Recent changes must be seen against a historical background, but a focus on contemporary events is also needed to understand the expansion of undercover investigations. The diversity of undercover activity and the absence of standard measures mean that my analysis must be rather general. Yet it is possible to describe the major causal factors involved in this shift.

    Changes in crime patterns, public attitudes and law enforcement priorities, in conjunction with organizational, legislative, judicial, and technical changes, help account for the shifts in undercover investigations. Several causal sequences can be identified. In perhaps the most important, changes in crime patterns...

  10. FOUR Types and Dimensions
    (pp. 60-88)

    Contemporary discussions of undercover work frequently offer either sweeping praise or categorical condemnation without making any distinctions among the types of operations and activities. This is unfortunate, because differences in type and form must be understood before undercover work can be explained, evaluated, or managed.

    Tolstoy has written of the exquisite complexity of the world. To take one small corner of it—the variety of police investigations is almost endless, and, looked at closely, each operation is unique. The social researcher seeks to document this empirical richness but also to generate concepts that help us see commonalities among seemingly diverse...

  11. FIVE The Complexity of Virtue
    (pp. 89-107)

    Among the most important questions in judging any public policy are: Is it legal? Does it work? Is it ethical? These, of course, can be interwoven. Morality may inspire law; from a vulgar pragmatist perspective, if something works, it is ethical. The definition, measurement, and weighing of costs and benefits in determining if a tactic works reflect values. Nonetheless the legal, operational, and ethical dimensions offer distinct perspectives for evaluating policy.

    The legality of undercover means has been well established in American history, even though there will always be gray areas and unresolved issues. There is disagreement about the effectiveness...

  12. SIX Intended Consequences of Undercover Work
    (pp. 108-128)

    St. Paul said: “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient.” When undercover means are lawful and ethical, is it still necessary to ask if they work? To answer this, a distinction should be made between operations directed against subjects whose identity is known in advance and those directed against a more general “market” of suspects. The criteria for judging the former are self-evident; for example, when an agent pretends to be a hit man and accepts a contract to kill someone, a homicide may be prevented; when a decoy strategy is used in response to...

  13. SEVEN Unintended Consequences: Targets, Third Parties, and Informers
    (pp. 129-158)

    Complex interventions are likely to result in a mixture of intended and unintended consequences. When such interventions involve secrecy and a variety of “unknowns,” the unanticipated consequences can be extensive.¹ Some of these consequences are beneficial: undercover operations may discover intelligence that helps prevent planned crimes or helps solve other crimes, including some that authorities were unaware of. Because of their dramatic appeal, such positive results are often made public. But the focus of this and the next chapter—unintended negative consequences—is less likely to become public. In the worst cases, undercover work may spread damage like an invisible...

  14. EIGHT Unintended Consequences: Police
    (pp. 159-179)

    The FBI’s reputation for integrity and its clean-cut, straight arrow image is attributable in part to J. Edgar Hoover’s refusal to allow agents to face the temptations and problems confronting undercover police. Similarly, Los Angeles’s Chief William Parker felt that the establishment of personal relations between officers and suspects “would invariably fester into a spot of corruption or prove a source of embarrassment even when capably and honestly conducted.”¹ As they recognized, the social and psychological consequences for police who play undercover roles can be severe. He who sups with the devil must indeed have a long spoon. What is...

  15. NINE Controlling Undercover Operations
    (pp. 180-205)

    This chapter is about limiting risks and hedging bets. If one believes that covert tactics are inherently unethical or uncontrollable, then prohibiting them is warranted, but such a conclusion is neither realistic nor defensible. As a police supervisor notes: “One is tempted to say, since you can’t control undercover investigations, don’t have them. But that’s impossible because it means you are immunizing certain kinds of criminal behavior.” Recent social, technical, and legal developments have been conducive to the expansion of undercover actions, and the kinds of lowvisibility offenses for which the tactic is sometimes uniquely suited are increasing.

    It is...

  16. TEN The New Surveillance
    (pp. 206-234)

    When I began this research, I was skeptical about the desirability of undercover tactics on specific as well as on general grounds. As applied to the political cases of the 1960s, there was much to be concerned about. Abuses were widespread. Beyond this, the spread of undercover means seemed to represent one more example of the extension of state power feared by Alexis de Tocqueville and later social theorists.

    Over the course of the research, my skepticism regarding the tactic itself softened, even as my concern over the general issues raised by Tocqueville increased. It became clear that, given the...

  17. Notes to Chapters 1-10
    (pp. 235-272)
  18. Index
    (pp. 273-284)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 285-285)