News10’s Damany Lewis interviews a supervising ABC agent who has posed as a high school student for undercover operations.
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) said it has conducted a handful of undercover operations targeting drug dealers at northern California high schools in the last decade. News10 recently was granted a rare interview with a supervising ABC agent who has posed as a high school student for those operations.
Here is a partial transcript of the agent's discussion with News10's Damany Lewis. The order of the questions has been edited for clarity. News10 is not revealing the agent's identity.
MORE: When law enforcement agents go undercover at high schools
Describe what it's like being an undercover officer.
Typically, you take on the persona of somebody else and people that you're dealing with don't know who you are because you're a cop so you're basically playing a role and acting like your somebody that you're not.
Are you undercover now?
All of our agents work both in the office as well as in the field in an undercover capacity so I do a combination of both of those right now.
What was your first job?
I was an undercover operative inside of a high school purchasing narcotics.
What high school?
It was Lindhurst High School in Olivehurst, California and it was in 2001. The operation began in January and concluded in April 2001.
How old were you at the time of the operation?
At the time I started this operation I was 26 years old and when it ended I was 27 years old. So at the time I was actually older than some of the teachers that were teaching at the school.
How old were you pretending to be?
I was pretending to be a 16-year-old who was turning 17. So I just basically deducted 10 years off of my age.
What was that like, fitting in?
It was challenging but it was fun. I was, as you mentioned, right out of the academy. So I wasn't, quote unquote, in that cop mode. I didn't have a lot of the cop mentality yet, so that's why I was chosen. Agents from our department are used a lot in undercover investigations because of our expertise in undercover investigations and assignments. So in my case, during this operation, I didn't have a lot of that cop mentality yet. So that's why they chose me.
How did you fit in?
I just researched a lot of the culture of teenagers at time, how they dressed, the music that they were listening to, some of the terms that the kids at that time were using. I tried to make sure that I researched those things just to make myself more believable as a 16-year-old.
What were some of those things?
You know, I don't even remember. At this point I don't remember because it was such a long time ago but it seemed to work. They weren't too leery of me. All of them weren't.
How many people knew that you were an undercover officer?
At the actual high school itself, only one other person knew that I was there and that I wasn't really a student in the school, that I was an actual cop there.
Why were you brought into the school?
The principal at the high school at the time, he identified a narcotics problem at the school. And so he went to, in my case, the Yuba County Sheriff's Department and requested assistance with that drug problem inside of the high school.
Have you seen "21 Jump Street"?
When you were assigned this, did that immediately come to mind?
Yes, I was excited, I was scared and of course a little apprehensive, but it was a great opportunity. It was stressful at some points but it was still great and fun.
What do you mean when you say it was challenging and stressful?
Just to be a 26-year-old person, an adult, going back into a high school and trying to remember what it's like to care so much about what your peers think about you... when you in fact don't really care what they think. Remembering how that is and taking yourself back to that mentality of a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old child when you are 26.
How did you enroll in the school?
I had an agent who was assigned to me and she was posing as my sister who had guardianship of me and she actually took me to the school enrolled me in the classes and was basically acting as my guardian for me while I was at the school. I had to take classes, I had to attend class, I had to take tests, I had to study, all while trying to be mindful of the fact that if I was really into drugs that I wouldn't necessarily be doing very well at those things. So I was just trying to find a happy medium where I was basically just trying to get by. I didn't want to fail out, but I didn't want to excel in any of the subjects either. Trying to find that happy medium. So I really did have to study a little bit, I had to take tests, I really had to go through all that.
Tests for what?
Math, science, English, whatever the class was, that's what I had to do.
Would you say you were a B student, C student...
I was probably a C, C- student, I would guess. It's been a long time, but that would be my guess.
Did teachers try and encourage you? Were they like, "hey, get your act together?"
No, I stayed away from the teachers as much as I could, kind of tried to just blend into the background, that seemed to work the best. I don't recall or remember any of the teachers approaching me to do better or anything like that or trying to encourage me to do better.
Let's talk about the social scene. Was it difficult making friends in high school the second time around?
High school kids are really no different than adults in that you've got kids who are going to be nice to you because you're the new kid but you're also going to have kids who are mean to you because you're the new kid. There were people, just like in adulthood, who were nice to me and were friendly with me, and I would kind of gravitate towards those people just as adults do. So no, it wasn't difficult. Just make yourself open and being social, things like that, help with the socialness of high school.
Did people ask you out?
I did get asked to prom. The person who asked me, he was one of the quote unquote good kids, so I did not go with him to prom. I just had to turn him down.
Was that hard? Hurting his feelings?
It was awkward because of the fact that I knew he was one of the good kids and he wasn't involved with drugs at all, so I just had to politely turn him down.
Talk to us about achieving your mission.
It's hard to pinpoint an exact way that you know that certain people are into illicit activities or narcotic activity. Basically, our undercover agents are trained and have experience going into bars and places and immersing ourselves into those types of situations so it was kind of the same. It was all new to me at the time, but it was kind of the same situation I was just in this high school, I was trying to determine who I thought were the people who were selling narcotics, so I can't really... I did it, I was able to do that, but as far as how I did that, it's hard to explain because you're just kind of there and you get that sense from somebody or that feeling from somebody and you just seek those people out and usually if you get that sense or feeling from someone you're usually right because you're just going with your instincts, basically. Basically, you're using your instincts, would be the short answer.
Did you have a hard time earning the trust of the subculture of those who were involved in drugs?
Yes. There were people who were calling me a narc, or saying I was a cop, or things like that, but in terms of trust, once I purchased marijuana or ecstasy or whatever it was I was purchasing from somebody, then I would gain that person's trust and their friends' trust because once I made a purchase from them and they didn't get arrested or in trouble, then that trust was then developed. It just kind of snowballs from there and then you're more in, you're considered more into their crowd, and so they trust you more.
Would you say the hardest part of your job was getting in touch with the subculture?
Yes, it probably took at least a good month or so to actually determine who I thought were the people into drugs.
Were there similarities among the students you hung out with?
They ran a whole gamut of different socio-economic statuses, ethnicities, everything. It was kind of across the board.
Did you go to parties?
At the time, which was 2001, the big thing was going to raves, and raves at the time were basically places where young persons would go to to do drugs. So there was a rave that was held during the time that I was doing this operation and I did attend it and the main purpose of me attending it was to try and gain the trust of one of the persons I was trying to purchase narcotics from. I went to the rave, I did see him there, I don't remember if I purchased narcotics from him at that rave or not. But after that, once he saw me outside of school, then back at school the following week there was more of that level of trust. Definitely, being able to develop trust with somebody is a big factor in them selling you narcotics.
What was the rave like?
The rave party was interesting, it was pretty much as is portrayed in the media. It was just a lot of kids running around, dancing, very clearly under the influence of something. Very typical.
Tell me about the smoke outs.
During the investigation I learned of a party and they termed it a smoke out, and it was at somebody's house in the middle of the day or right after school or something like that, it was in the day time. And so, same thing. I went to this quote unquote smoke out and saw some of the kids I had been talking to at school outside of the house, and so again I was able to purchase narcotics from one of those individuals and so I gained his trust by doing that because of the fact that I was able to go to this party, or quote unquote smoke out place, and so I was able to purchase from him in the future, after that event.
Did you ever have to do drugs during the investigation?
No, none of the kids that I actually purchased from wanted me, or said, "if you're not a cop, then you would smoke this with me," or anything like that, or "you would take this pill if you weren't a cop." Nobody ever did that to me.
What are officers trained to do if that happens?
Obviously, police officers can't do drugs. So, regardless of what people say, they don't do drugs, we don't pretend to do it, so I didn't do any of those things. Typically, you'll make up an excuse why you can't. In this situation, in the high school operation, I probably (would've) said, "oh my sister will kill me if I do that, if she finds out, I'll get in trouble, I'll have to drive home, I'll see her, I can't do it." Just making up excuses about that. Since doing this operation it's come up a lot more in this job.
What would you do if someone suspected you were an undercover agent?
You just try and turn the tide and just say, "no, I'm not, you must be if you're asking me so many questions, why do you keep saying that, why do you keep asking me that, why do you keep saying that, would have I done to make you think that I am a cop, how could I be, I'm going to school with you, I'm taking classes with you, why do you think I'm a cop?" Just kind of trying to turn it back on that person.
Talk about the drugs that you came in contact with.
Over the course of the four-month investigation I purchased drugs on 21 separate occasions from eight different subjects. So there were eight arrests made at the conclusion of my investigation.
The drugs that I purchased were marijuana and ecstasy and prescription pills.
How did you approach the students you suspected of selling drugs? Just being social, friendly, talking to them, trying to figure out what their currency was, what was important to them, trying to figure out what made them tick, just like in any social situation, where you try to talk to somebody and try and figure out what was important to them.
How much were you buying?
I was typically buying just usable amounts, so dime bags, or smaller amounts that weren't of such large quantities that could then be broken apart to sell myself, so usable amounts.
Was there anything that surprised you, that made you say, wow, this has really changed since I was in high school, in regards to the drug scene?
It was actually very similar to what I remembered when I was in high school. It was pretty common that those types of drugs would be available in a high school. I don't think that will change. I think that our department conducting these sort of investigation are effective in getting the drugs away from the kids that are doing it at the time, so I think it's a very important, valuable tool that law enforcement can use. These types of narcotic buy programs in high schools are very effective in getting the drugs away from the kids, but I wasn't surprised by anything that I did see.
Are there undercover cops right now in high schools?
I don't know, there could be, I wouldn't be surprised by the fact that they are going on right not, but I really don't know at this time.
Do you think what you did sent a message to students? Do you think these kinds of operations send a message?
I think it very clearly sends a message that, number one, that it is known what goes on at the high schools in terms of drug use and abuse, (and) number two, that it's not going to be tolerated, that once it's identified and investigated, such as these investigations, that it will be prosecuted under the law. The main reason it got brought to the attention of law enforcement is because parents were complaining, not so much complaining, but that parents were made aware of what was going on in their students' lives, in their children's lives. In that regard, I think it's very effective that our department is involved with these types of investigation. It's also important to make it known to parents what's going on in their kids' lives.
After you left the school, did you hear how the students reacted?
On the operation that I did as well as subsequent ones that I've done since then, you'll get a lot of people that will say, "oh, I knew she was a cop," or "oh, I knew it," when it actuality, they didn't know. So I remember a lot of that and kind of thought it was interesting. Oh, I bought from that person four times, or whatever the case was. You get a lot of people trying to think they knew what was going on even through they didn't.
After being in that culture for four months, what advice would you give parents on things to look out for?
The same thing that you hear all the time, which is just asking your kids questions, question them on everything, regardless of whether they want to answer you or not, regardless or whether they want you to ask them questions or not. Be involved with their lives. If they're involved in extra-curricular activities like sports, making sure you know who's taking them to and from practice each day, making sure as a parent, that you know who's taking them to and from school each day. Holding yourself accountable too as a parent, I think, in what your kids' lives are. If they become withdrawn, if they become angry, those can all be signs and symptoms of something bigger that's going on. Depression might be a sign that they're using drugs, or something like that. Being aware. Working for Alcoholic Beverage Control, making sure that they don't have access to alcohol, because they are teenagers, would probably be a very important thing to do. Just common sense stuff.
What would you tell a student about your work?
You never know if there is somebody who is a cop in your high school, so be careful. Number one, you shouldn't be dealing in drugs or alcohol at all, but number two, if you are, the person you might be sitting next to could potentially be a police officer, so they should be careful.