An upside-down career: The story of an undercover rookie

I was a natural, mainly because as a 150-pound, Peter Brady lookalike nobody would ever believe I was a cop — “He’s way too young and scrawny to be a cop.”


My law enforcement career started off different than most cops. Soon after graduating the police academy in 1994, I was interviewed for a narcotics unit. That was great, except for the fact that I didn’t apply for a narcotics unit — they selected me. 

I guess I fit a certain profile. 

Two weeks after my interview, I was a District Attorney Investigator. They handed me a badge, gun, and keys to a Ford Mustang. Then things got strange.

Start Thinking Like a Bad Guy 
My new sergeant told me to “dirty up.” It went something like this: 

“Go get some earrings, grow your hair out, and grow a beard (impossible for me back then). Forget everything you just learned in the academy — with the exception of how to defend yourself. Quit talking like a cop, standing like a cop, and walking like a cop. Get rid of your cop haircut. 

“Go 180 degrees away from anything cop-related. Go play ball and hang out near the laundromat on 50th during the day. At night, hang out in the bars on the west-end. Let the bad guys see you around for a few months. Keep your eyes open. Make friends. Watch, listen, observe, and take notes. Remember faces, nicknames, and addresses and make sure to check in at the office daily. 

“Stop thinking like a good guy and start thinking like a bad guy.”

So I did — and I went to work. 

Our office was a “telemarketing business” and unless you really paid attention to the comings and goings of that building, you’d never know the truth of what was actually inside. 

Actually, anybody with an IQ over 13 could plainly see that we did not fit the mold of telemarketers. We looked like a bunch of cops trying to not look like cops. 

Except me — I staked a darker territory. 

A Knack for Acting
One day I was a homeless guy looking for crack. The next I was a businessman looking to “move weight.” By evening I had cowboy boots on and was buying cocaine at the west-end honkytonk. 

I submersed myself in my roles. 

I call them roles because the golden rule of undercover work is being a good actor. It has very little to do with police work. If you can act, you can work undercover. Get your story straight — make it have depth in case you get questioned. Be able to back it up with facts, times, places, and events — know what you are talking about. 

Don’t say you work for UPS if you don’t know anything about what they do, how they do it, or what union you belong to. Don’t say you’ve been to prison unless you have. Think of an excuse for everything and have it ready to go. 

You’re going to get frisked for a wire constantly. If you forget to take off your necklace badge before doing a buy and they ask what that is under your shirt, you better say something fast. 

That actually happened to another agent and the excuse was, “It’s my pacemaker — I have a bad heart.” Those are the types of mistakes that can ruin five months of undercover work (the pacemaker excuse actually worked and it is something of legend now). 

I was a natural, mainly because as a 150-pound, Peter Brady lookalike nobody would ever believe I was a cop — “He’s way too young and scrawny to be a cop.”

But, I definitely fit the bill of someone who was strung out on crack, crystal, or cocaine. I watched the addicts and carried myself like they did, wore what they wore (thrift stores are perfect), and looked like they looked. 

If you want to look like you’ve been on a two day bender, then go on one (minus the drugs, of course). I would stay up all night before an undercover buy so I could look the part the next day. 

Going Back to Normal
The transition into patrol several years later was tough. After several years of losing any memory I had of the academy, I was now expected to fit right in as a veteran officer. Going from busting a major cocaine dealer to running radar sank me into a bit of a depression. I soon found my step again with some help from great FTOs.

My new sergeant told me to “clean up.” Something along the lines of: 

“Stand like a cop, talk like a cop, walk like a cop and get rid of that long hair. Take out those earrings and go 180 degrees away from anything drug-unit related. You look like crap. Start working out, quit smoking and get some sleep. Start hanging out in the cop bars at night and play softball with cops during the day. 

Let the officers see you for a few months. Keep your eyes open, make friends, watch, listen, observe, take notes, and remember faces, nicknames, and addresses. Make sure to check in at the office daily. Stop thinking like a bad guy start thinking like a good guy. 

“Oh, and by the way the Mustang isn’t a going away present — we need the car back.”

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