Covert policing necessarily involves deception, which in turn often leads to participation in activity that appears to be criminal. In undercover operations, the police have introduced drugs into prison, undertaken assignments from Latin American drug cartels to launder money, established fencing businesses that paid cash for stolen goods and for “referrals,” printed counterfeit bills, and committed perjury, to cite a few examples.

In each of these instances, undercover police engaged in seemingly illegal activity to gather evidence or to maintain their fictitious identities. Yet unless these acts are committed by “rogue cops” not authorized to participate in illegal activity, these activities aren’t considered crimes. Indeed, they are considered a justifiable and sometimes necessary aspect of undercover policing.

This practice of authorized criminality is secret, unaccountable, and in conflict with some of the basic premises of democratic policing. And to the extent that authorized criminality presents mixed messages about their moral standing, it undermines social support for the police. While the practice isn’t new, authorized criminality raises fundamental questions about the limits of acceptable police conduct and has been too long ignored…


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