If you’re like most people, then your idea of an undercover cop probably comes from an action flick or dramatic television show. Of course, we all know that Hollywood likes to dramatize and that the real world is different. So what is life like for an undercover cop?

For starters, the role of an undercover cop, which is often shortened to “UC,” is a role that requires commitment. The officer will change their appearance and even demeanor to match the position, and they live as their character without any police credentials or weapons. The only exception to this rule is if the character would carry a gun.

This character may be provided with a credit report or criminal history, which helps convince others that this false persona is real.

Going undercover is taxing for a law enforcement officer. They are removed from their lives and cannot contact friends or family for long periods. While some agencies may keep an undercover cop close to save money, this increases the risk that someone will recognize them and their cover “blown.” Undercover officers only occasionally make contact with their employers and cannot truly open up.

Furthermore, officers are expected not to break the law while in their undercover role. However, they may be expected to do this by the people they associate within their part. If an undercover officer knows they will have to break the law to maintain their role, they must seek approval ahead of time. Crimes such as doing drugs are strictly forbidden because it would hurt the undercover officer’s credibility if they must testify at trial.

The ideal candidate for undercover work is someone who can easily make friends. Because these officers are playing a role to get information about crime, they must earn the trust of people who are not aware of their true identity. Those people can feel a real sense of betrayal when the truth is revealed. Furthermore, the UC can develop friendly feelings for those people, even if they’re criminals.

Although Hollywood depicts undercover work as long-term, it often lasts just a few months at a time due to the cost. Federal agencies that have access to more resources can start undercover investigations that continue for years, however.