Action News 5 was recently granted access to Undercover Bootcamp, a police training course where officers learn how to survive a life of crime.
The program is an intensive, two week course taught by undercover police officers with the Memphis Police Department and retired FBI agent Joe Pistone, whose six years undercover with the New York mob were the basis for the movie "Donnie Brasco."
During the training program, officers use exercises designed around real-life Mid-South scenarios. Students are police officers from across the country who report to class inside a rundown trailer. Though most students in the course have already done some undercover work, the bootcamp is designed to take them out of their element.
When Action News 5 sat in on the class, the evening's lesson was how to buy crack cocaine from a mid-level drug dealer - a man with a sawed-off shotgun at his side. The training scenarios were recorded on camera from multiple angles, but to recruits, the scenario felt and looked so real they almost forgot they were in training.
Training scenarios can include everything from drug deals to infiltrating crack houses with prostitutes. In this particular simulated drug deal, an informant introduces the undercover officer to his drug-dealing, drug using friends. The officer's job is to make contact, establish a relationship, make a money transaction, and get out alive - all while keeping an eye on the informant to make sure he doesn't compromise the case.
During the scenario, the trainee ran into trouble while buying crack. His story fell apart when he got his times confused for making the deal. It's a dangerous mistake that could signal the buyer is not who he says he is.
When the simulation fell apart, the instructor told the student he acted too much like a robot and his story didn't work.
"If you don't perform, and you can't make it then, we're not going to pass you," the instructor said. "It's nothing personal. It's business.
That's because in addition to catching their suspect, undercover cops also have to collect evidence that can be used in court.
"They break you down and break you of your bad habits - of all thoughts that could get you hurt, get you killed, and keep you from going home to your family," one student said of the instructions.
When Action News 5 visited the training program, there were nearly 30 students in training. Five of them have already dropped out of the class.
Another three trainees will complete the course, but they won't be certified as street ready. Because going undercover can be an commitment of over two years, instructors say more than an officer's mental and physical strength is tested. Most undercover officers don't get a lot of sleep, and still have to portray themselves as a real criminal.
"The real criminals out there, they aren't getting any sleep, they're staying up all night partying, and doing the same thing, so in order to fit that role you have to put yourself in the same position," one instructor said.
But officials claim undercover work is effective. Undercover officers have a 95 percent conviction rate in Memphis, and the officers who completed the course Action News 5 attended are currently on the streets.
State and federal prosecutors rely on undercover work to use in the new Drug Market intervention program to convict repeat offenders at the federal level so that they serve longer sentences.