Dirty or Duped?

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Making the transition from beat officer to narcotics squad is not easy. A rookie undercover officer has to unlearn practically everything he was taught at the police academy about officer safety. He has no gun, no badge, no lights and sirens to protect him. He has to lose his cop persona. He better be willing to turn his back on a doper and work with little or no supervision. He's in plain clothes now, playing a part, living a lie on the streets.

He may join narcotics because he gets to be a cowboy, riding his own adrenal high by busting down doors and taking down people. If he joins because he wants to make a difference in the drug war, he will quickly be disabused of that notion. For every drug house or corner pusher he pops, another will rise to take his place. Yet his job is based on numbers, the push for arrests, the competition for funds to justify a task force or a drug court. It's easy to get frustrated when the dealers are winning, when the prisons are full and the drugs keep flowing, when the bad guys have all the toys and the good guys have to work off-duty jobs to pay bills.

Temptation is everywhere. Where there are drugs, there is money and lots of it, and it's his job to trick people out of both. He gets to pretend he's a crook; he gets to drink beer, shoot pool, hustle women and make dope deals. He better believe in his work and in himself because his character will be tested.

When the officer goes undercover, he has two ways to deal. He can make the transaction himself or play it safer by letting a confidential informant, or CI, make a controlled buy--keeping the informant under tight surveillance, giving him marked money to make the purchase, searching him thoroughly for drugs (so he isn't setting anyone up) and money (so he isn't making any purchases on his own account). Of course, now his snitch is a material witness to a drug delivery and the courts will require his testimony, which compromises his confidentiality. DPD field operation procedures certainly encourage undercover officers to make purchases themselves. It's better practice to use the informant to introduce the cop to a dealer and then cut him out of the investigation as soon as possible. It's also more time consuming and much riskier.

"It's just lazy police work to let an informant make the buy," says Barbara Markham, who worked as a deep-cover narcotics officer for 11 years, including a stint on the Denton County Narcotics Task Force. "You don't want your informant seeing how you conduct your business. They're still crooks, and you always have to worry about them."

In the early '90s, Mark DeLaPaz joined DPD's street squad, a new narcotics unit that recently had been set up partly to combat the crack epidemic. Its targets were neighborhood drug houses and street dealers openly peddling their product to drive-up customers. Other DPD narcotics units such as the enforcement squad and the joint federal and city task force directed their efforts at midlevel dealers who traded in larger quantities of drugs. Their investigations took longer and were more complex; their informants were higher up the food chain. But the street squad responded to resident complaints and wasn't set up for long-term, deep-cover operations. Its investigations were brief encounters--get in, get out, get the stat.

"An officer might receive as many as 60 complaints a day," says one former street squad detective. "We produced the numbers that support narcotics, and we were always under pressure to produce arrests."

DeLaPaz generated the kind of stats that his supervisors loved, racking up repeated commendations, though he was once reprimanded for raiding the wrong house. "There are so many officers in narcotics that just like looking scruffy and laying out in bars. They don't like buying dope," says a police source close to DeLaPaz. "But every glue-sniffing, paint-snorting thug in East Dallas knew Mark. He worked as hard as anyone in the division."

Stature in narcotics comes from cultivating deals, not by arresting the corner crack dealer selling $10 rocks but from busting bigger players in the drug trade, midlevel wholesalers who can supply ounces, a pound, maybe even a kilo of cocaine or speed. "If an officer is able to buy a kilo by himself without an informant around, he is a good officer," Markham says. "He has done some real infiltrating."

Those sorts of deals, however, take time to develop, particularly if the undercover officer is making the buy. The higher up you go in the drug world, the more businesslike the transaction. There are negotiations, there are associates, there are guns. And often there is lunch. "The first meet is just an introduction from your CI," says one former Dallas narcotics officer. "The guy wants to meet on neutral ground--a public place or restaurant--unless he is fixing to hijack you." Maybe the CI makes a buy, but the officer doesn't act on it; and maybe beeper, cell phone numbers and code words are exchanged. "You've got to work your way into his trust."

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald