Crime+investigation is a proud partner of CrimeCon UK. As part of an ongoing series, we are interviewing speakers and contributors to the show.
Working as an undercover officer must make life very complicated, now imagine your other half is not only a police officer but an undercover one as well. That was the situation faced by real-life couple Mr and Mrs Smith (not their real names) who met on the force and worked within the fields of Counter-Terrorism and Serious Organised Crime on countless high-risk operations.
Mr and Mrs Smith will be appearing at this year's CrimeCon UK to share their experiences of working undercover. Come along to their session to find out what's it like to juggle family life while juggling false identities.
Crime+Investigation spoke to Mr and Mrs Smith over email and they provided written answers to our questions.
1. What was your route to joining the police
I was brought up in the late 60s early 70s on a council estate in Manchester, a bit like the Chatsworth estate from the TV programme ‘Shameless’. The Police were regular visitors to our street. It was during this period of my life a developed a professional interest in the Police on how to evade capture.
I left home at the age of 16 and joined the Military. This was the making of me. I had my bed, new clothes rather than second-hand cast downs. Three square meals a day and structure. I had an amazing military career and obtained the rank of Sergeant at the age of 23. My only disappointment was failing ‘P Company’ Parachute selection. I was to use this disappointment in my later life. I left the Military in 1987 and joined the Police. That is how much my life and outlook on life had changed. The poacher had become the gamekeeper.
My early life as a streetwise kid from Manchester gave me a head start on most of my fellow peers. I soon got the reputation of being a good thief-taker and hence came to the attention of the CID department. I secured a position on CID within five years. I worked on many different crimes from murder to fraud and all crimes in between. I set my sights on the next progressive step as a detective, The Regional Crime Squad (RCS).
The RCS targeted the top echelon of Organised Crime Groups (OCG’s) and deployed the cutting edge of tactics against them. This was when I met Undercover Officers (UCO’s) and the tactic of using them to combat crime. So, I approached my RCS boss and declared my interest in applying for the role. The selection process is long, complex and demanding and can take over a year to get through the hoops and secure a place on the National UnderCover and Assessment Course.
The selection process has many stages and you can fail at any stage. Mentally I was prepared for any disappointment because of the disappointment I experience when I failed P Company. I turned a negative into a positive. The process involved three interview panels, psychometric testing, scenario situations, studying law and completing the national course.
I was successful at every stage of the process and qualified as an UnderCover Officer (UCO). This was the start of a 15-year role as a UCO, the highest level of investigating crime. It was not the front line of investigation it was behind enemy lines!
From 6th form, I joined a UK force as a Cadet and had an amazing time completing lots of physical challenges such as Ten Tours. When I was 18 ½ years old I became attested as a uniform Police Constable and thoroughly enjoyed myself however I decided to look outside the police for job opportunities and left the force in 1987 before returning to policing with another police force in 1993. I spent a very short time in uniform before becoming a Detective Constable and joining a Proactive Unit targeting burglars, car thieves etc.
It was during this time that my DS suggested that because of my personality and character traits I ought to consider become a Test Purchase Officer (TPO), This is the step below a UCA as TPO or UnderCover Foundation Officers as they are known now, only carry out short-term low-level operational deployments that require little legend as they generally do not have to stand up to a high level of scrutiny. I carried out this part-time role alongside my ‘main’ Detective roles as I moved between departments such as Force Surveillance, Force Crime & Drugs Unit, Covert Human Intelligence Handling (CHIS) with Customs, as they were known and then because of my skill base I was one of the first Detectives to be recruited into the newly created Major Crime department.
By this time, I was a single Mum with a four-year-old child and it was at this point I saw the UCO vacancies national advert. I knew I was more than capable and ready to do this but first I had to seek written support from my D.I. that’s when I hit a block…not that he didn’t think I was good enough but that he didn’t want to lose me and he reminded me that I had a child to look after!!!!…
That incensed me as I had explained to him that I had worked long hours in difficult circumstances in various roles, I was often ‘on call’ and had never declined any duties, responsibilities, asked for extra support or any time off due to child care issues. I stated that even following the submission of an application, I might get paper sifted out, if I got through the application process I had to sit a regional interview board and I might fail, if I got through this there was a national interview board and if I got through that there was a psychological assessment that I had to pass and the National UnderCover Training and Assessment two week pass or fail course. Still, the D.I was insistent that he wouldn’t support my application. I have always respected seniority in UK policing but I am also not afraid to speak my mind and I knew I had built a really good reputation within my force and with all of the Senior Leadership Team earning Chief Constable Commendations and other certificates of Merit along the way. I, therefore, decided my last hope was to go over my D.I‘s head and seek an appointment with the Assistance Chief Constable (ACC) to put forward my case. I met with the ACC and highlighted that I was being prevented from applying for a position, in which I knew I would be successful because I was too good at my ‘day job’ and I was a single Mum which was wholly unfair. I was delighted that the ACC supported me completely and ensured that I was able to put forward a UCO application form and he ensured that my DI supported it. The rest is history as they say…!!
2. Why did it appeal to you as a job?
The role appealed to me because I could pitch myself against the criminal best using every tool UK Police had in their toolbox. I got a buzz out of carrying out surveillance. Surveillance is not undercover policing but following someone for days without them detecting you is exciting and challenging. The satisfaction of facing these individuals across a courtroom and seeing them handed long prison sentence is very rewarding.
I love the fact that I am getting one over the bad guys! I am using my years of policing experience, knowledge, my personality and character to infiltrate these bad guys and girls and bring them to account. Don’t get me wrong some of them I got on well with, I’ve even had to decline the invitation to be a bridesmaid but I have always had the view that if you do wrong it will always catch up on you. Sometimes these individuals use every trick in the book to carry out their crime and think themselves untouchable by the UK policing and they often are with conventional overt policing.
However I feel a real sense of achievement when overt policing hasn’t been able to bring these people to account and I have and yet the ‘bad guys’ have no idea I was the one responsible.. even now!!!
3. How did you both meet?
The circle of working UCO’s is quite tight. You become aware of other UCO’s when you attend specialist courses or coming together on different operations. We had met on a few jobs where we both had different roles, I recall doing courses on Kidnap and Extortion and Specialist Firearms together. Our main coming together was on a long-term infiltration that I was running. I needed a certain female profile to work with a male UCO to infiltrate a geographical area. This was a very successful operation and ran for some years.
As Mr Smith said the world of working UCOs was small and tight and we would come together on various deployments. I must admit he was never my cup of tea, to begin with. We were always very ‘sparky’ with each other. I suppose that’s because I am quite ‘Alpha’, very independent and can speak up for myself and so is he. I suppose it goes with the territory. However, when working together on a long-term project I think we gained a mutual respect for each other’s work and then one thing led to another!!
4. Looking back on your career, as an undercover officer what are you most proud of and why?
Good question. My proudest moments were operations I will not share with you for the reasons stated below. Completing the selection process and the National UCO Course was a great day for me.
I’ve had many proud moments. Seeing individuals who were responsible for the exploitation of sex or labour imprisoned and having their assets taken from them but also knowing that my child has always been aware of what I was doing and was really proud of me.
5. Were you involved in any high-profile cases our readers may have heard of?
Yes. I have worked on several high-profile operations that have featured in the national press and television. On some operations, I have not been disclosed as an Undercover Officer. It would not be prudent or safe to disclose these operations. What I can tell you is on one of these operations the defendant was sentenced to a term of imprisonment in excess of 20 years.
I have worked on high profile operations however the fact that an Undercover Officer was involved has not had to be disclosed due to the success of the following police overt operation that my intelligence fed and my identity, therefore, has been protected.
6. What’s the biggest challenges of being an undercover officer?
The initial meeting with the target is always a challenging moment. This meeting makes or breaks the relationship. You must enter that meeting without disturbing the environment. You must make yourself criminally attractive to the target without compromising your role as a UCO. You cannot portray yourself as a pushover and allow yourself to be manipulated by the target and find yourself agreeing to a course of action that you cannot fulfil for legal or operational reasons. Your brain is working at hyper speed. You have to listen, analyse, think ‘Can I do this, does it fit in with the operational plan, is it legal?’ and give an acceptable believable reply without compromising yourself or the operation.
My biggest challenge was definitely being a single Mum working in a very male-dominated arena. In fact, some of the SIOs and colleagues I worked with never knew I had a child, I didn’t want this fact to preclude me from being chosen for UCO roles and I know that this might have influenced some SIOs decisions. My working hours and days were long and my hours had to sync with both my UCO roles and the operational requirements of the investigation. I relied heavily on my Mum and a child care student to be on standby and help with childcare, so when one wasn’t available the other was.
I never hid my role from my child. They have grown up used to Mum carrying out counter-surveillance and to people asking ‘what Mum did for a living’ and my child’s stock reply was ‘Mum does a boring filing and paperwork job in CID’. Nobody’s interested in people that do that!
7. Was it a help that your other half was also an undercover officer and knew what you were going through?
Yes, it does help in that they know that you can’t just ignore the phone when it rings, that you might have to change your plans at the last minute because of the ‘job’ Family support is very important and you do have those normal family demands that need to be attended to.
Yes, it does. They know that you might be ‘called out’ to an ongoing or new UCO role depending on the nature of the incident when you are supposed to be having time off, or when you sitting down for a dinner with friends and have to excuse yourself to answer calls from criminal associates or officers from different investigations which you are involved in and are running at the same time. Also, there has to be huge trust between your life partner and yourself as UCOs can be working very closely together in husband and wife or boyfriend/girlfriend roles and it has to look real whilst in their pseudonym accommodation and social life.
8. What’s the most surprising thing people don’t realise about being an undercover officer?
The diversity of the role. I have played the role of a professional businessman, HGV driver, drug dealer, handler of stolen property, firearms buyer to name but a few. As a busy UCO, I was involved in two or three operations at the same time, running around with three or four covert mobile phones as well as my real personal phone. UCO’s have their normal life. You have times when you have family commitments and responsibilities, and you have your day job as a Police Officer. Balancing all these components can make for very long days. I worked undercover for 15 years, that is not to say I was undercover for 365 days a year for 15 years, I was spinning plates for 15 years and I loved being busy.
Being an undercover officer isn’t all serious and life-threatening there are times when you are in a role within an investigation and with the bad guys and girls but doing normal activities as you would in your real-life such as learning to dive, attending horse racing, music events, nightclubs, lovely restaurants, dinner parties and many more.
I also travelled to overseas countries to attend overseas events that supported my legend [backstory] and worked alongside European UCOs assisting them on their operations and utilised these contacts and experiences within the UK based operations I was working within. I developed strong working relationships and friendships with my European colleagues and it was a ‘win, win’ for UK and European policing as the UCOs would come over and take up roles as and when needed in my operations and I would do likewise for them.
9. What was the closest either of you came to having your cover blown?
I was compromised on jobs from which I quickly and safely extracted myself. One was where the target of the operation was an informant for another law enforcement agency. He informed on me to his handlers, which resulted in me being put under surveillance by the other agency.
On another operation, I visited the coffee lounge of a hotel on the night before a meeting with the criminal subject. I wanted to have a look at the venue and plan my positioning and strategy for the meeting. At the time of the recce, I engaged a waitress in some friendly banter. The following day when I entered the lounge with the criminal subject she was on duty. I was praying she did not refer to my previous visit as I had told the criminal subject I had not been there before. Schoolboy error that could have crashed the operation. Lesson learnt.
The closest I came to having my cover blown was when a really experienced member of the intelligence team, who was supporting the operation left a debriefing meeting between myself and the operational team. He had documented all the intelligence I had provided to the operational team about the criminal associates I had met that day, their activities and future plans and also had various RIPA [Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act] authorities and other details of the operation with him.
This officer following the meeting then placed these documents and laptop into a case within the boot of his car and instead of driving straight to a location where this information could be stored safely, he stopped for a drink in a pub. Whilst he was in there the car was broken into by an opportunist thief and the case, laptop and papers were stolen. I was at the time in a theatre with my child and when I came out my Cover Officer informed me of what had happened and that a fast-track investigation to recover the documents was now in place together with dynamic risk assessing around my safety.
Subsequently, the offender was arrested and it was evident that his only interest had been the laptop, he hadn’t even looked at the paperwork thankfully. During the interview, he told the officer where he had thrown the bag and papers and these were then located and all found to be intact. A close escape for me and the long-running operation but an end for the intelligence officer’s career within covert operations.
10. It is obviously a difficult job being an undercover officer but you must have found yourself in some funny situations?
On one operation I played the role of a corrupt Police Detective Sergeant, the target who was a very good fraudster was double careful about meeting me and concerned about whether I was recording our conversations. On our first meeting, he was conducting counter-surveillance on the hotel we had arranged to meet at. At the meeting, he patted me down and searched me in the toilets before he uttered a word. He was ultra-suspicious. The initial meeting took place, but he didn’t really say a lot. He wanted the second meeting to take place in a sauna. This was agreed.
In the locker room, he insisted that we both strip naked in front of each other to ensure I wasn’t wearing a ‘wire’. He checked my swim shorts to ensure there wasn’t anything in them. Satisfied we went to the sauna. Unfortunately, there was someone else in there so he insisted we get in the swimming pool, stand with the water up to our necks before he would speak. When we were getting dressed after the meeting he asked if I was married. I told him I had a girlfriend. He then told me about his mum who was looking for someone about my age. I have often wondered if this invite to become his stepfather was a result of him seeing me naked !!!!
On one operation I had forged a ‘friendship’ with a brothel-keeper who had a number of brothels. On this occasion, I travelled to the main brothel with my UCO husband to ‘catch up socially’ with the brothel keeper. My ‘husband’ took his seat on the sofa in the lounge surrounded by prostitutes (the girls) who were looking through the new arrival of erotic products and stripping naked to try on various lingerie items.
Whilst we were inside the premises there was a knock at the door and I was informed by the Brothel Keeper that this was a regular weekly client who liked to be called ‘The Plumber’. The plumber’s real job was as a city investment banker. The brothel keeper opened the door and I could see a male in a suit holding a ‘plunger’ in his hand and stating he had come to ‘fix the leak’!! He was given access to the downstairs bathroom where he changed into a boiler suit and placed his neatly folded up clothes outside the bathroom door. A few minutes later he emerged from the bathroom, a plunger in hand, with a large grin on his face, picked up his clothes and apparently as usual asked to take a shower. The payment was then made in a wad of cash and he left in his Jag! Shortly after this, cocaine was put on the table and ‘the girls’ decided to party and my hubby and I left ostensibly to travel to a business meeting. When we left my husband laughed and said to me “I’ll never be able to call a plumber again without thinking of this!!!”
11. How do you unwind after a long day of dealing with drug dealers and contract killers?
I always left my alter ego in my covert car. I would have a phone(s) with me that could ring at any time and you had to be ready to answer and record the conversation. So, you never really switched off but the events of the day would in general stay in my covert car. You would always let your Cover Officer know you were home safe and well and that would generate further conversation about the job and what next? But I learnt to ‘silo’ these events and enjoy my family time and either a glass of vino or Irish whiskey.
As soon as I left my covert car in a safe location I would revert to being ‘me’, a Mum and a partner. I suppose I am very lucky because I have the type of character in which although in my different policing roles I have been involved in tragic situations and seen horrific sights such as victims of murder, suicides, post mortems, fatal road traffic collisions I am able to ‘bring down the shutters’ and although I am empathetic I do not dwell on these incidents outside my working hours. I unwind by enjoying time with my partner and family, socialising with friends and I love open water sea-swimming and working out.
12. Logistically how did it work with both of you living together presumably with false identities? It sounds complicated?
It may sound complicated, but you build in good practice to prevent compromising yourself. I had my covert car and all the necessary documents to go with it. These were kept separate from my real documentation. I would never drive my covert vehicle with anything that disclosed my true identity. My covert wallet was always brown, my real wallet was always black and still is today. The covert brown wallet had everything you would expect to find in any guys wallet. Covert flats/accommodation/business premises were managed in the same way. When we were out together in a role, we always used our pseudonym names with each other even if we were just talking between ourselves.
It's all about planning and preparation. I had different coloured covert mobile phones for different operations so if one rang, I knew immediately what operation it belonged to and could answer the call appropriately. Also, for each operation I was involved in I would have my pseudonym identification documents for that particular role ie credit cards, driving licences, business cards in a separate purse within a handbag which I would specifically use for that operation.
So, if I was deployed on a particular operation all I had to do was pick up that handbag and it had everything I needed for that role, purse, wallet, car keys, house keys, business cards etc.
It made it really easy for me and anything that related to the ‘real me’ was left at home.
13. What do TV and film get often right and wrong about being an undercover police officer?
TV is TV, and the makers have to squash a whole operation into an hour. I would not criticise them. The real thing takes time and there is paperwork at every stage. Preparing statements and transcripts of recorded conversations. I found that one hour of covertly recorded conversation takes about eight hours to transcribe. Each step of the operation has to be approved and authorised by a senior officer. This process takes time and involves many meetings before the authorisation is agreed and signed. Risk assessment forms an important part of the Authorisation. Officer safety is paramount at every step. On the TV the UCOs and the operational team take unrealistic risks. It takes a long time to build up a deep undercover legend (history). Once this legend is at a level whereby it will withstand scrutiny it becomes a precious commodity and is protected by its creator. It will only be used (burnt) on the right job and for the right reason.
To commence an undercover operation there is so much that has to be put into place first. The need for an undercover operation has to be justified and all other lines of overt police investigation have had to be exhausted. What previous tactics have been used against the subject/group? What has worked, what has failed? Is it cost-effective ie the costs of the operation against the outcome of any prosecution? What assets (human/premises/documentation/operational team etc) are required and the costs? Organisational, operational and staff risk assessments compiled and reviewed.
Authorisation and conduct of UCOs under RIPA 2000 obtained and regularly reviewed. Compliance with Part II RIPA Authorities and the HUMINT Codes of Practice. Selection of UCOs with the correct profile and knowledge base. Liaison with partner agencies to obtain the necessary supporting documentation and the appropriate level of backstopping and legend building for any deployed UCO. Selection of an operational team with confidentiality notices signed as a requirement of the role and ongoing formal system of welfare assessments for UCOs.
You can see from this list, which is not exhaustive, that there are many things to consider prior to the start of an Undercover operation and this may take months and often even when the Undercover operation has commenced it may take months before the UCOs have been able to infiltrate the criminal subject or group and begins to obtain the intelligence required. What is portrayed correctly by TV and film are the very close working relationships and trust that is built between not only the UCOs but with their operational team…you become like a family.
14. What’s your favourite true-crime series, podcast or book?
I have just finished listening to the John Sweeney podcast ‘Hunting Ghislaine’ which I enjoyed. If you have not listened to it yet I can highly recommend it. We tend to watch a lot of true crime and forensic documentaries. Bio films on Netflix about organised crime lords worldwide. So, I guess we tend to watch real-life criminals rather than TV series.
I really enjoy the American series Forensic Detectives and Forensic Files which are drama-documentary style television programmes that show how forensic science has been utilised to help solve murders, cold cases and other crimes.