Police departments make plans to swap undercover officers. Criminals recognize agents who stay in one city too long
Boston — Local police departments, taking a cue from federal agencies, are beginning to create information and assistance networks that cross state lines. One outgrowth is temporary swapping of personnel for undercover work. Leading the way, the Boston Police Department is in the process of setting up such a swap operation. Local officials are in contact with police departments in major cities with whom swaps might be made, but are unwilling, for obvious security reasons, to identify them.
``Criminals have their own intelligence network'' that goes far beyond state borders, says Dan Meany, a longtime Massachusetts corrections officer who is editor of the International Criminal Investigative Magazine.
The police, on the other hand, ``are just coming out of the dark ages in terms of intelligence activity,'' comments Mr. Meany, whose undercover work has taken him across the country and into many prisons.
He explains that local police have always trailed behind national investigative units such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as criminal networks, in their ability to gather information and successfully pass it along.
But the blame is not all theirs, he says: ``Politics always seems to get in the way of good criminal investigations.''
Boston's program will involve the exchange of officers with police departments in other states. It is the first major police effort to solve two basic problems faced by all departments, regardless of size: training enough qualified undercover agents and keeping their identities hidden.
``It's not like in the movies, where they slide from place to place. They [actual agents] have homes and families and communities; their faces get known too fast,'' says Gary Kreep, executive director of the United States Justice Foundation (USJF) in California.
And agents have to have just the right look, says Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the American Federation of Police.
``There are some places where going in with a badge, or looking like you have one, is like hanging yourself,'' Mr. Arenberg adds.
To bolster intelligence networks, officers have tried in the past to form unofficial organizations for trading information. But Meany says these efforts were not terribly successful.
It is felt that swapping of undercover agents will give police departments a higher success rate in cracking crime rings.
Wider contacts between officers in different states will provide a new channel for sharing experience, skills, and information, those involved believe.
Some police officials believe that the swapping idea stems from pressure to crack down on drug abuse and terrorism.
Meany says that because ``people have gotten scared [of drugs and terrorism], they are finally demanding results. But the police are running out of answers.'' This is their way, he says, of showing that there is something they can do about it.
``I would imagine that you're going to see this kind of thing increase because of the publicity on drugs,'' says Don Fuller, director of the Center for Administration of Justice in California. ``Because there is concern about stopping it,'' he added, ``there is finally an attempt to do something.''
Meany notes that in the past, interdepartmental jealousy and interstate competition have obstructed nationwide cooperation between local police departments.
But recently, cooperation between departments, and between local police and federal agencies, has been increasing.
The CIA has begun to recruit retired or active undercover agents from police departments for antiterrorist activity abroad. Federal agencies are looking for the same type of person as local police: experienced, streetwise officers.
Because of the sensitive nature of the swapping program, and the amount of paper work involved with moving officers back and forth, it must be carefully and slowly done, Arenberg says.
He explains: ``If you are a police officer from Florida who is sent to Illinois, you may not necessarily meet the standards of Illinois or vice versa.... States will have to grant temporary police power.''
And herein lies a difficulty, Arenberg says: ``This further exposes the officer to public record. If the motive is to keep a low profile and make it difficult to be traced, they [the officers being swapped] may not want to compromise their position by getting police power.''
But such officers could only act as sources of information and evidence. ``They would in effect become a witness to a crime,'' Arenberg explains. ``They would have to testify to a grand jury.''
Despite the difficulties, many in law enforcement agree that the swapping of undercover personnel is a worthwhile and timely effort.
The Boston plan is not expected to become operational until the end of 1987 or the beginning of 1988.