04/03/2013 13:00 GMT | Updated 04/05/2013 06:12 BST

Sleeping With the Enemy? The Reporting of Undercover Sex and the Police Neglects the Psychology of the Predicament

Has the reporting of the cases over-simplified the predicament of undercover agents and their relationships?

Five women and one man are currently suing the Metropolitan Police over alleged intimate relationships with undercover officers, a UK Parliamentary cross-party Home Affairs committee revealed recently.

One woman claimed a six-year relationship with a former PC, who posed as an environmental protester to infiltrate a group. It is alleged that two undercover police officers 'tricked' political activists into having sex with them, and the exposure of this led to the collapse of a trial.

Other claims relate to a different Metropolitan Police officer who, in 2009, it is alleged masqueraded as a lorry driver, infiltrating a small group of anarchists. Again, sexual relationships are said to have been formed.

Has the reporting of the cases over-simplified the predicament of undercover agents and their relationships?

Law enforcement agencies around the world employ psychologists to select, train, monitor and assist undercover officers. Various surveys have established that up to a quarter of active undercover agents exhibit psychological disturbance, so the FBI in the USA recognised long ago the need for substantial psychological assistance. Yet the British services, as far as we know, remain suspicious of scientific psychology, and are repeatedly suffering the consequences.

Psychologist Michel Girodo has found from his research on federal agents that the more undercover assignments are undertaken, the more drug, alcohol, and disciplinary problems are experienced.

Professor Michel Girodo, Trevor Deck and Melanie Morrison from the University of Ottawa, were recently inspired scientifically to investigate the psychological impact of undercover work, by the story of Clifton James, who had been enlisted by the British Secret Service in World War II. Assigned to impersonate General Montgomery, he complained of strain in maintaining a false identity, and of the uncontrolled re-appearance of the 'Monty' personality, after the operation was over.

Others have reported identity disturbances among secret agents of Mossad - the Israeli Secret Service. For example, the one agent infiltrating a group in Syria, became confused over his true name and identity after a few years in the role.

Girodo, Deck and Morrison describe a survey of undercover officers in Hawaii which found 21% of officers complained of experiencing their self as "unreal" during their undercover assignments. Identity disturbances include an FBI agent, undercover for two and a half years, being arrested for shoplifting, admitting to adopting his undercover persona in places that had nothing to do with his work, and unable to explain how these false persona reappearances occurred.

In another case, reported by Girodo and colleagues, an FBI agent who had spent 15 years in various deep undercover roles, was arrested for attempted murder. Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, was entered in a diminished capacity defence. The agent's 'alter personality', it was claimed, had 'taken over', leading to a hostage siege.

In their study entitled 'Dissociative-type Identity Disturbances in Undercover Agents: Socio-Cognitive Factors behind false-identity appearances and re-enactments', Girodo and colleagues investigated 48 federal police officers undergoing undercover field training. 66% were identified as enacting their false identity outside an operational context.

One possible explanation for these results, published in the academic journal 'Social Behaviour and Personality', is that like actors, successful undercover agents incorporate as much of themselves as possible into the false identity created. Like a method actor, immersive undercover agents strive to identify personally with the part. Could this contribute to identity confusion? Are certain kinds of personality drawn to undercover roles?

In another investigation entitled 'Vice isn't nice: a look at the effects of working undercover', Professors Mark Pogrebin and Eric Poole from the University of Colorado at Denver argued the secrecy required for clandestine police work encourages self-aggrandizement, with many agents developing an exaggerated sense of power. It also has an addictive quality with experiences of intrigue, excitement and a protected contact with illegality.

The study published in the 'Journal of Criminal Justice' points out that the undercover agent typically must operate alone; moreover, the deeper the level of cover required in the investigation, the more isolated the officer becomes. Their isolation in those roles may foster real changes in attitudes, values, beliefs, manner, habits, demeanour, character, and identity.

Intriguing gender differences in the way police officers adapt to undercover work, possibly reveal profound contrasts in the psychology of men and women. Dr Lynda Baker, Associate Professor at Wayne State University in the USA, has published a study entitled 'Undercover as Sex Workers: The Attitudes and Experiences of Female Vice Officers', where she did not seem to find that female police officers acting undercover as prostitutes, showing much evidence of identity disturbance or role confusion in their 'real' lives.

Her findings, published in the journal 'Women and Criminal Justice', echo other research on undercover female police officers pretending to be sex-workers, which finds that generally they are disgusted with the role-playing persona and the clientele, but are thrilled by the opportunity to work undercover, as it affords an escape from routine police work.

The only 'fun' female prostitute decoys have with their assignments, appears to be adding a competitive edge or contest to see who would get the most arrests, drugs, or money, or who would achieve the fastest pick-up.

The Rachel Nickell case in the UK shows just how unstuck the police can get in an undercover operation, as this contributed to the notorious police fiasco attempting to incriminate Colin Stagg of the murder of Rachel Nikell. In 1992 Nikell had been walking with her son on Wimbledon Common when she was sexually assaulted and stabbed 49 times.

An illustration of the psychological damage involved is the six figure sum the undercover woman police officer, known as Lizzie James, was later awarded for the trauma she suffered in her attempts to get Colin Stagg to admit he had killed Rachel Nickell.

A study in the 'Forensic Psychologists Casebook: Psychological profiling and criminal investigation', examining closely all the interactions between Lizzie James and Colin Stagg, published by one of the authors of this article (DC) and Laurence Alison, Professor of Psychology at Liverpool University, found that, under wayward guidance at the time, Lizzie James was using a number of psychological devices to try to implicate Stagg.

Undercover officers do not overtly support crime. She thought she was just encouraging Stagg to talk, but in fact was subtly using persuasive techniques to get him to admit to a murder, he did not commit.

For example, the study entitled 'Rhetorical shaping in an undercover operation: the investigation of Colin Stagg in the Rachel Nickell murder enquiry', reported she would indicate interest if he offered any suggestion of getting sexually excited about violence, which she had hinted would turn her on, and imply she shared that desire with him.

It even got to the point where she subtly indicated, indirectly, that she would like sex with the sort of man who killed Rachel Nickel. Even after six months of this pressure, Stagg had not admitted the murder, yet the police still charged him with it. The judge threw out the undercover element of the case.

In contrast to the six figure sums awarded to Stagg and 'Lizzie James', Nickell's son had been granted a five figure sum from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

There needs to be much more and better quality psychological input into undercover operations, whether they are conducted by the police or secret service. Some of these processes were probably complicit in intelligence failures that provoked needless wars.

In the Rachel Nikell case, the real killer was left free and went on to kill again, before he was eventually caught.