What Is an Undercover Cop? - Job Description & Salary

Think you might have what it takes to be an undercover cop? Learn the job description, duties, training and median wages to see you this career would be perfect for you. Schools offering Law Enforcement degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information at a Glance

Undercover cops use special tactics to infiltrate criminal organizations like the mafia, gangs and other wrongdoers. They adopt alternate personas and live amongst their targets, collecting evidence that will later be used in court. Undercover police officers aren't required to have a formal degree, but they do typically need several years of experience on the police force, plus a very specific set of skills. The table below gives you a brief overview of the profession.

Degree Required High school diploma, bachelor's degree sometimes preferred
Education Field of Study Criminal justice
Training Required Police training academy, on-the-job training
Key Skills Physical fitness, communication, wise judgment
Job Growth (2016-2026) 7% (for all police and detectives)*
Median Salary (2017) $62,960 ('for all police and detectives)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Do Undercover Cops Do?

Undercover cops investigate criminal activity from the inside. They become totally immersed in the subculture, wearing the same clothes, driving the same cars, using the same lingo and living in the same types of houses as the people they are investigating. Elaborate backstories inform their new identities and, for a period of months or even years, they eat, sleep and breathe the lives of their targets.

All the while, undercover officers collect evidence such as DNA, documents and audio recordings to help build a case that will stand up in court. Once they've collected enough evidence of wrongdoing, they'll be carefully extracted and asked to provide written accounts of their time undercover. Some are even asked to testify in court against their former acquaintances.

How Do You Become an Undercover Cop?

You won't find an ad for undercover cops on any recruitment sites. That's because only seasoned police officers are even considered for the position. So, to become an undercover cop, you first need to get hired as a police officer, get several years of experience, and get promoted up the ranks. At the minimum, you'll need a high school diploma, but some police forces prefer candidates with at least some college experience or a degree in criminal justice. Candidates are asked to complete training at a police academy and then go through on-the-job training before becoming an official member of the force.

What Special Skills Do You Need to Go Undercover?

Based on reports from former undercover officers, undercover work can be incredibly dangerous, both physically and emotionally. Even with years of experience and meticulous planning, undercover officers can find themselves in situations where violence and death are a very real possibility. Some officers also report the emotional stress it can inflict to be away from their families for extended periods of time. For these reasons, a strong sense of identity is important, as is a healthy psychological profile. Most undercover officers also benefit from strong memorization skills and a penchant for acting.

How Much Do Undercover Officers Make?

Pinpointing the salary of an undercover officer is difficult; not much data exist to shed light on a typical wage. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does provide some data about uniformed police officer salaries. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for for all police and detectives in 2017 was $62,960.

Is There Special Training Involved?

In preparation for going undercover, officers are asked to memorize elaborate stories about their new identities. In essence, they are taking on a role, just like an actor. They'll need to rehearse their backstory again and again. They'll need to be incredibly well-versed in the field they're entering. If it's Wall Street like in the example above, the officer might need to take classes on stock market trading, learn the jargon of traders and research everything about that world. After all, one slip-up could compromise the entire investigation.

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