Provoked Undercover

Posted: October 31, 2011 by dhaliwal15 in Agent Provocateurs
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Police Agent Provocateurs play a vital role for law enforcement and other government agencies. Agent Provocateurs are similar to spies who infiltrate an organization. However, one main difference is that Provocateurs may provoke or influence a person or a group into committing an illegal action rather than just collecting as visual surveillance. This is done so arrests and convictions can be made against non-law abiding citizens. However, provoking someone to commit an act of violence is not fair, and angencies should not be allowed to try and force civilians into commit violent acts. By provoking someone to commit an act, law enforcement agencies are setting citizens up to fail. In these cases, people who are arrested, prosecuted, and sent to jail had no intent to commit any criminal acts until they were provoked by law-enforcement agencies. No individual person is greater then the law, therefore agencies that use agents as provocateurs do not have any speacial authority to break the law.

According to Gary T. Marx (1974), of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Center for Criminal Justice, agent provocateurs can range from all kinds of undercover officers, from Special Forces, to ordinary police officers, and even ordinary citizens. An agent provocateur could be considered an undercover spy who is pretending to fit into a certain group, in order to gain further intelligence.

After an agent has infiltrated an organization and become a member, after he or she has been accepted, the agent may be asked or have to do many immoral acts, which may go against his or her desires. Marx (1974) states that “the agent may go along with the illegal actions of the group, he [or she] may actually provoke such actions, or he [or she] may set up a situation in which the group appears to have taken or to be about to take an illegal action” (Marx, 1974, 405). Furthermore, Marx (1974)  states that an agent is not just randomly chosen by he or she must also fit a certain set of characteristics. An agent is carefully examined at how well he or she matches and fits into with a group. For example, age, race, and religion are just some of the characteristics that may be looked at.

Marx (1974) introduces an interesting point while discussing the characteristics of a agent who may be chosen. Furthermore, he states that civilians rather than professionally trained and sworn police are used as agents who act as informant.Po lice agencies may influence a civilian to take on the role of an agent provocateur for a number of reasons, including the promise of financial rewards or a reduction in a charge or sentence.  Also a civilian may share much more attributes of a group that he or she is asked to infiltrate. Furthermore, Marx (1974) talks about using police officers as agents. These police officers, who are chosen to perform such a task, are usually young inexperienced officer, who have just recently joined the police force.

In the United States of America, there been several interesting incidents involving undercover police informants. The Black Panthers have had their fair share of the police and other government agencies infiltrating their group. According to the New York Times, a New York Police Detective helped the Black Panthers open up a location in the Bronx. At the time, the Police Detective was undercover acting as a spy. This should be considered an act of deviance on behalf of not only the Detective, but also the NYPD as a whole. The NYPD as a department allowed one of their own Detectives to participate in illegal activity, and helping to expand the illegal activity. Furthermore, the FBI in the United State of America has been involved in several undercover operations.

Closer to home, in a Canadian context, according to a special new article written by “The Vancouver Sun” Mickie (Phil) Smith, who has relations to the BC Hells Angels was tricked into confession of a murder and the murder victims missing body by an undercover officer. He also told the undercover agent of how he disposed of the body, and who his accomplice was.  The officer in this case was posing as an undercover crime boss.

There are many cautious circumstances that law enforcement agencies have to be aware of when dealing with agents who go undercover in order to and infiltrate a certain group. Known as The Double Agent, the agent plays a role were he or she is truly an activist for the group which he or she is supposed to infiltrate. The purpose of The Double Agent is to trick and manipulate the law enforcement agencies by providing false information. Marx (1974) states that “He [or she] may enjoy a sense of power by deceiving everyone, experience cross-pressures, and be unclear as to which side he [or she] is really on”(Marx, 1974, 417). Another reason why many law enforcement agencies must be aware of when dealing with agents is that some may have mixed views and opinions. According to Marx (1974), if an agent shares similar characteristics of a group that he or she has infiltrated, he or she may convert and become part of the group, rather than just an undercover member. In order to first become an accepted member of a group an agent must build trust, and loyalties within a particular group. However, the more trust and loyalties he or she builds, the more his or her opinions may change about the group and the people within.

When a police officer becomes an undercover agent, he or she may be involved in dealing with many dangerous criminals and befriending them. Everett Hughes (1962), states that being an undercover agent and trying to befriend a criminal, while also looking for a conviction is considered to be “dirty work”. Hughes (1962) also goes on to say that leaders do not want direct involvement with criminal organizations, rather the leaders find someone who is useful enough to go and do the dirty work that is required of agents. When a police agent is doing undercover work illegal actions should not be permitted for the agent, as these actions would be going against many laws which are set out by the state. However, many undercover operations may end up being a total failure if some illegal actions are not to be permitted, because an agent may not be able gather enough evidence in a legal manner, therefore, an arrest or a charge may not be possible. This is very similar to the “Dirty Harry” phenomena, were the “means” are justified by a successful ending, such as catching the criminal (Punch, 2009, 24). As Marx (1974) states, some agents may contribute to violence, whether directly or indirectly, through these kinds of illegal actions one is able to entrap other committing illegal actions as well. Similar to the “Dirty Harry” phenomena, the term “Noble Causers” seems to fit in well with an agent provocateur. Although some agents may break the law and go agasint social norms, they however, are breaking the law for a greater cause. As Stated by Punch (2009),  Noble Causers, break the law because officers bevleice it to be for the good of the public.

Agent provocateurs do not only provoke criminal organizations and other citizens into committing illegal actions. Agent Provocateurs are also responsible for gathering vital information, which may possibly lead to further arrests of criminal organization groups. In addition, these agents are responsible for gathering a huge amount of intelligence from inside a secret organization. Throughout history there have been many incidents involving law enforcement agencies infiltrating certain groups, not only is this a dangerous role for officers and citizens to play, it is also dirty work as many people may be easily influenced.

References

Hughes, E. 1962. “Good People and Dirty Work.” Social Problems 10 (Summer): 3-11

Marx. Gary. T (1974) Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 80 (2), 402-442.

New York Times. (1971, February 3).

New York Times. (1971, February 17).

Punch, Maurice (2009). Police Corruption: Deviance, Accountability and Reform in Policing. Devon: Willan Publishing (Routledge)

The Vancouver Sun. (2004, September 12). B.C.’s Hells Angels: Rich and Powerful. The Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from http://www.canada.c/vancouver/vancouversun/news/observer/story.html?id=f525bc8a-d80a-4ece-9ffc-f5a2a55a43b0

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Comments
  1. Mike Larsen says:

    You begin by suggesting that provocateurs play a vital role in policing agencies. What do you mean by this? Do you mean that provocateurs perform an essential policing function? If so, what function is this? It seems particularly important to distinguish between the role of an undercover informant and the role of an agent provocateur here.

    Regarding the Vancouver Sun story – was this an example of an undercover agent gathering intelligence, or an agent provocateur?

    Finally, how does the history of agents provocateurs fit with the distinctions between ‘low policing’ and ‘high policing’? Are provocateurs used in both of these settings? Note that high policing is characterized by the absorbent policing of political activities. Marx notes that agents provocateurs are often used in political cases. Would you characterize the use of agents provocateurs as a form of political policing?

  2. meritar says:

    “However, provoking someone to commit an act of violence is not fair…”
    Do you mean morally or legally unfair? Provocation is a defense in law, but it is not a crime.

    This question comes up for myself, as well. What about the agent provocateur makes being one a crime?

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