Mission impossible? Undercover in a small city

SGT. RICHARD O'LEARY usually goes to work with neatly trimmed hair and a sports jacket. But on the night of April 5, 1985, he put on jeans, brown work boots, a baseball cap, and a long brown wig. The sky was overcast as he and a similarly dressed police officer from another city climbed to the top of the two-story apartment building in Manchester, N.H., a small working-class city. Aristides Wilson had been selling about two ounces of cocaine a week out of his apartment there.

The front lines of the war on drugs had finally reached the inner-city of this one-time mill town. New tactics were called for.

Sergeant O'Leary had been a uniformed cop in Mr. Wilson's neighborhood only a year before. He was sure that he would be recognized.

Wilson checked out the two detectives from behind a table where cocaine was laid out in razor-cut lines on a mirror. ``We talked to the guy about friends I knew he knew, and he therefore figured I knew what I was talking about,'' O'Leary recalls.

This was the young detective's first ``buy,'' and he was nervous. ``While I was counting out the money, $300 or $400 dollars fell all over the floor of the living room.... I scooped up the money, gave him $100, and he gave me a gram of coke. I walked out the door and back to the van, where I sat and rested for a half-hour to get my wits together again. It was kind of a nerve-wracking experience.''

O'Leary's first undercover drug deal lead to Wilson's conviction, but, more significantly, it marked the beginning of a new form of investigation for the Manchester Police Department.

Long-term undercover work using Manchester's own detectives was long considered impossible in a city of about 100,000. When the department tried using its own detectives for undercover work in the mid-1970s, the officers became known after one bust. Once recognized, they were never able to make another buy.

Manchester's response to its growing drug problem is typical of other small cities throughout the United States. Its police department is large enough that it can afford to have a few detectives specialize in undercover drug work. But the city's size poses a challenge that big-city cops don't have to face.

``You constantly run into the same 5 or 6 percent of the population,'' says Special Agent Steve Morreale, spokesman for the New England field office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). ``In Boston, they move around more and are not always pounding the same area.... Given the constraints of resources and jurisdictional boundaries, Manchester's system is a natural occurrence.''

Previously, Manchester had relied on pooling resources with police from other cities, or outside help from the state police or DEA. But a growing drug problem forced the city to take action of its own, beginning with a joint sting operation in the fall of 1984 involving detectives from a neighboring city.

The operation convinced O'Leary and his partner - who, like the other undercover detectives, spoke on the condition that he not be named - that they could set up their own undercover drug unit. O'Leary grew a beard and long hair.

The decision to go undercover, however, proved to involve much more than a change of clothes. Once they altered their appearances they had to prevent anyone with connections to the drug world from identifying these scruffy-looking men as cops. In a small city like Manchester, that was not easy. It meant radical changes in the way they worked, their relationships with co-workers, and their ability to move about freely.

The key to the unit's success lies in preventing criminals from ever making the connection between the undercovers' street personality and their profession. Through informants and their own surveillance, they pick a target and, over several months, make a series of drug buys from the chosen dealer.

Once the bulk of evidence is gathered that establishes a pattern of drug selling, as many as six months may pass before the actual arrest takes place.

The delay helps obscure which of the dealer's many customers was a cop. Also, since the undercover cops never make the busts themselves, the dealers never get to see their faces.

The quality of the drug unit's cases also helps to keep its detectives out of court. The undercover unit usually makes three or four buys from any dealer they arrest. ``The cases are so strong,'' says a Manchester narcotics detective, ``that the defendants are usually willing to plead guilty.'' A negotiated plea usually results in half of the maximum penalty for dealers. In three years, the undercover detectives have had to testify in the Hillsborough County Superior Court only twice.

Even within the police station, the undercover cops have to be careful. They avoid certain hallways completely because they are never sure who might be walking through with an escort.

The other policemen keep a lookout, but ``sometimes it's hard and doesn't work,'' O'Leary says. ``Sometimes we have to jump in the men's room.'' Even fancier footwork is required out on the street.

``Occasionally somebody says, `I think I know you. I think I remember you or I recognize you or something like that,''' O'Leary says. That's when ``your heart goes up into your throat and your hands start shaking.''

Sometimes, keeping a cover can put the detectives in life-threatening positions. At other times ``it's a little humorous,'' says Detective Fine (not his real name). They often get helpful tips such as ``Be careful, the cops are around,'' or ``Don't worry, I can pick them out.'' Another ironic line is: ``I can smell 'em a mile away.''

The detectives face isolation as well. As O'Leary puts it, ``undercover detectives don't go to the policemen's ball.'' All contact with fellow policemen outside the station is carefully avoided.

``I'm 31 years old and all of a sudden, I can't do certain things and be certain places,'' says Detective Fine.

The regular detectives see the lighter side of the undercovers' new social lives. ``They all took up fishing,'' says burglary Detective Mark Putney. As he explains it, the seclusion of a wooded stream provides the last social haven for the drug unit members.

There are also effects on the personal lives of the undercover detectives. When they eat out, for example, they go to another town. One member had to avoid a friend's wedding because he wasn't sure who would be there.

O'Leary even switched churches. ``When I started doing this ... my appearance changed. So instead of going into a thousand and one questions, I went to a Catholic church in another town. Manchester is basically a large city, but it still has a town atmosphere.''

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