The Undercover Provocateur

Posted: December 1, 2011 by dhaliwal15 in Agent Provocateurs
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A Police Agent Provocateur is a particular type of undercover police infiltrator. However, this undercover agent does not necessarily have to be a Police officer; the agent could be any public civilian who is hired by the Police Department for a special assignment, depending on the circumstances. Police Agent Provocateurs play a vital role for law enforcement and other government agencies, when trying to catch citizens, who the police deem as criminals. 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 should not be considered fair, and agencies 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 than the law, therefore agencies that use agents as provocateurs do not have any special 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 Canada, there have been several big accusations made against Police agent provocateurs, especially in massive protests, which occurred in Canada’s largest Metropolitan area, Toronto, Ontario. In addition, some agent provocateur operations have not gone so well as others, for example, Montebello, Quebec. Protestors did not turn violent, and the Quebec Provincial police had to admit their mistake.

In Montebello, Quebec, the Sûreté du Québec, which is the Provincial police force of Quebec was accused of using police agent provocateurs in a wrongful manner. Many people gathered to protest meetings of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America on August 20 2007. The protest was intended to be a peaceful one, however three individuals who had their faces covered, and wore similar boots to those of the police officers dressed in riot gear, were essentially asked to leave the protest; due to them trying to turn the protest violent.

A video posted on YouTube, by user leper99 is about a CBC News World clip about the use of agent provocateurs regarding the Montebello summit. In the video clip criminal lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon talks about how the use of agent provocateurs is not a proper use of police resources. In addition, he states that there should be guidelines and other regulations set out for police organization, when dealing with large crowds. Furthermore, the video states that the police use agent provocateurs so that they may disperse crowds quickly and gather up as many protestors as possible. Also that the use of agent provocateurs is endorsed by politicians, because it is gives the police an opportunity to move in the with riot squad and disperse the large crowd as soon as possible.

The G20 Summit riots on June 26 2010 occurred in Canada’s largest metropolitan area Toronto, Ontario. Many conspiracies began to arise of the Toronto Police Department  using officers as provocateurs, in order to provoke the protesters to become violent. Similar to the Montebello incident, many rioters were seen wearing similar boots as Toronto Police officers that day. Rioters wearing similar shoes as officers were caught on pictures destroying local stores, and even going as far as to jumping on top of police cars.

More than a year later as Jerry Colangelo (2011) states that at least two police officers infiltrated activist groups that were planning to cause trouble in the streets of Toronto. Recently police officers have come forward and admitted “that not only did they join the group, but that they also took part in and encouraged several acts of vandalism” (Colangelo, 2011). The two officers who took part in this operation have not been yet identified, however, one is a male, and one is a female. While the two were undercover “they promoted vandalism and violence at strategy sessions — once suggesting that they vandalise building equipment — and took part in an unsuccessful attempt to interfere with the Vancouver Olympic torch run” (Colangelo, 2011).

Furthermore, relating to the Toronto G20 riots, CTV Southwestern Ontario conducted an interview with activist, Julian Ichim. Ichim discusses how he had close contact with officers who were part of the actions committed by rioters. As Ichim discusses with CTV Southwestern Ontario, about the undercover police officers actions, he states that the officers “offered to drive to events like the Olympic Torch relay to protest as it passed through a number of locations, including Guelph, Kitchener and northern Ontario” (2011). Furthermore, “Ichim says the officer was one of the big organizers of the torch protest and was even arrested while trying to block the flame in northern Ontario” (CTV Southwestern Ontario, 2011). Whether the officer organized the protest against the torch in order to cause some sort of a violent scene, such as a riot is still unknown. In addition, the Ontario Provincial Police have refused to release the final amount of how much these undercover operation cost taxpayers (CTV Southwestern Ontario, 2011).

Marx (1974) states that agent provocateurs are used most often in political cases. Agents work undercover and the public does not know about these police operations. However, Simon Kitson (1999) states that “between the political policing exercised by democracies and by dictatorships, certain general characteristics serve as common denominators” (p. 98). How can two different types of political views be so similar, this seems as if the police are following in a dictatorship way.

Furthermore, According to Jean-Paul Brodeur (2007), low policing is defined as the policing of criminal acts, which are not deemed a threat to national security. For example, littering or spray painting on private property is not seen as a major crime. On the other hand, high policing is based on the threat of national security. As Brodeur (2007) states that high policing has more to do with intelligence gathering, and is left aside by some smaller police organization, rather high policing is handled mostly by many federal organizations such as, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in the United State of America, and in Canada, CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service). However, many local police forces may be responsible for planting agent provocateurs into a crowd, although this may involve more than one organization, such as the RCMP, OPP, and the Toronto Police Service all working together during the Toronto G20 Riots. Finally, Brodeur (2007) discusses the importance of humans going under cover, “…despite the growing reliance on technical sources, the infiltration of human informants remains the primary tool of high policing” (p. 35).

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.

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 against social norms, they however, are breaking the law for a greater cause. As Stated by Punch (2009), Noble Causers, break the law because officers believe it to be for the good of the public.

Police organizations that plan to provoke peaceful crowds into to turning violent should be held accountable for their actions. Officers along with the organizations that they belong to should be held responsible, similar to the members of the public who may be charged with an offence. The police are there to keep peace within and control any situations from arising. However, the more undercover officers provoke a crowd it is not only a danger towards the general public, but also it can cause a huge amount of property damage and put many officers lives at risk; with such a violent crowd. The police make the public look like a bunch of anarchists. However, many undercover officers influence acts of anarchy to be pursued by certain individuals.

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.

After searching for “Police Agent Provocateurs” on Google, many different kinds of websites appeared on the first page of results there were about 5,560,000 hits.  Surprisingly, the Wikipedia page does contain of a decent amount of Canadian content, compared to other countries. Also, the Wikipedia page introduces the incident which took place in Montebello, Quebec. Furthermore, several multimedia websites such as You Tube appeared with videos of undercover officers provoking rioters, and escalating the violence.  Several newspaper articles appeared, such as The Star. In addition, some newspapers from the United Kingdom appeared such as: The Guardian which discussed the G20 protests in London also resulted in a similar situation as Toronto, and The Independent. A non-profit organization known as the Center for Research on Globalization (CRG) based out of Quebec, displayed several pictures of rioters and police officers wearing the exact same boots.  The Articles are fairly recent dating back to 2007.


Brodeur, J. P. (2007). High and low policing in post-9/11 times. Policing, 1(1), 25-37. doi: 10.1093/police/pam002

Colangelo, J. (2011, November 28). G20 protest group infiltrated by police. The Brock Press. Retrieved from

Southwestern Ontario, C. (2011, November 23). Police went undercover with activists before g20 riot. CTV News. Retrieved from

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

Kitson, S. (1999). Political policing. Crime, History & Societies, 3(2), 92-102. Retrieved from

leper99. (2007, August 23). quebec police admit going undercover at montebello protests [Video file]. Retrieved from

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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