Sunday, June 02, 2019
SECRET BRANCH HEADQUARTERS
Somewhere in NSW is a shopfront registered to a fictitious company. It’s hidden within a smattering of light industry: smash repairers, furniture retailers, video stores, financial firms. Walk through its doorway and you will find the covert office of the NSW Undercover Branch, a venue so secretive that there are no cleaners to wipe the windows or empty the fridge in the kitchenette. In this tightly controlled environment the operatives vacuum the carpets and take turns mopping the floors; they also shred their own documents and must act normal if anyone walks in off the street. Few police know its location — even the Commissioner doesn’t know where to find it.
The NSW Police Force declined to participate in this story when I first approached them in 2018, but revised their position (somewhat grudgingly) when the size and scope of the piece became apparent. After some discussion, I was connected with the commander of the NSW Undercover Branch. For the purpose of this piece I’ll him ‘Henry’.
There are no photographs of Henry available on the Internet, which is why I walked straight past him on the day we met at a city cafe. He has been in charge for the last eight years and, like his operatives, works under an assumed identity.
These are his first public comments about undercover work.
“It’s important that operatives never lose their real identity, so the Branch is a psychological sanctuary as well as a physical sanctuary,” he said, likening the office to a safe-zone, one of the few places where staff can loosen their collars and use their true names without fear of exposure. Even inside a police station this isn’t possible, because cover identities must be maintained at all times.
Henry declined to say how many jobs pass his desk, or how many are accepted. “Most,” is all he would say. “I’ll often accept the job but not with the suggested direction of the investigators,” he added. Some jobs, he explained, are better suited to a female operative, or a younger operative, or to a different scenario than the one detectives had in mind. “We accept more than we turn down, but that’s a reflection of the investigators using us — they know what we can and can’t do.”
On arrival at the Branch recruits are given a new driver’s licence, birth certificate, an entry in the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages, and even a passport if they’re likely to chase criminals overseas. Each identity requires a wallet and a phone, and some operatives carry three wallets and three phones during their time at the Branch because their workload is so high. There might be a sturdy legion of ‘pool undercovers’ working across the state, but the number of full-time operatives — those who work exclusively on complex, long-term, deep-cover missions — is not very high.
Each facade also comes with its own complicated backstory that must be remembered down to its finest detail. Not just the full name and date of birth, but also the family history, career history, car rego and everything else associated with an entire life. But for a lie to seem real it needs a skein of truth running through it, and this is why operatives practice the subtle art of ‘backstopping’. Applied in its most basic terms, it means that if an operative is pretending to live in Double Bay, they should be seen standing in line at the Sheaf as often as possible, or sipping cocktails at Pelicano, or reclining on one of the wicker chairs at Cosmopolitan. In other words, create a presence for themselves, make the lie seem real.
If this sounds like a perk there are others, too. Recruits can grow out their hair, grow a goatee, wear heels, a mini-skirt, and generally violate the police force’s dress code policy for as long as their rotation lasts — but not a minute longer. From day one, even during their training, operatives are given career counselling to reinforce that their time at the Branch is temporary. It’s to stop them from quitting, or psychologically crashing, once their rotation expires. “Before they start, they know it’s not forever,” Henry said.
It’s the moment every undercover cop knows is coming and there is only one way to survive: stay calm.
For Andrew Curran, the dreaded moment came in 1997 when he started buying speed from the Rebels outlaw motorcycle gang. One of their suppliers, Vince*, was a violent, mid-level dealer who kept a crew of goombahs around his safe house in Green Valley, a flop with a carport where drugs were bagged and money was counted.
The street was a cul-de-sac, which meant physical surveillance was virtually impossible.
“Any strange cars would stick out and my cover would be blown,” Curran said. A boy from the bush, he’d never used a bong before or even seen one before he joined the Undercover Branch in 1995.
He made his first buys from Vince with the help of an informant, a criminal who had been cutting deals with police but kept breaking the law. When the informant was pulled over one day driving a stolen car, he demanded the charges be dropped because of his ongoing assistance. Detectives said no, and as punishment he threatened to out Curran to the bikies — telling them Curran was a fellow informant.
“A lot of criminals who are too afraid to kill a police officer are not afraid to kill an informant,” Curran said.
To Curran’s amazement, and confusion, senior cops wanted him to keep buying speed from Vince. On the day of his next deployment he could sense the danger. Six men were sitting around a plastic table, all staring.
“The hatred emanating from them was almost a physical force,” Curran said.
The advice on panic is always counterintuitive. Swimmers are advised to stay perfectly still if they see a shark in the water. But adhering to this advice is almost impossible in the real world, which is why Curran froze, his heart pounding in his ear and his mind spiralling with snap calculations. Turn around? Run for it? Stay staunch? Keep buying?
Vince told Curran to follow him into the kitchen, which was strange because normally he carried the gear on him.
“He was patting his pockets saying, ‘Where did I f … in’ put it?’” Curran said.
Drug dealers never misplace their stash, which is why Curran watched in terror as Vince started rifling through drawers pretending to look for the drugs.
“I could see my shirt vibrating because my heart was beating so hard,” he said. “I was waiting for him to pull out a knife or a gun.”
The lucky break came when Vince spotted a car outside in the driveway with another operative sitting in the passenger seat. He grew angry at the sight of it, furious that Curran had brought an unknown person to his door. Curran passed the cop off as his buyer, someone who wanted the drugs Vince was carrying. That saved him.
“He told me to come back in 20 minutes on my own and he would have the drugs for me,” Curran said, the relief almost overwhelming as he walked out of the kitchen back to his car, his back tensed as he expected someone to launch a king-hit on him.
These cases are common. Another agent, Adam, was sent into a house in Bass Hill posing as a construction worker. He was given a patdown at the door, then thrust into a room reeking of bong smoke and chemicals. He counted 10 large Middle Eastern men through the haze, plus the dealer, a guy named Tony. One of them was squinting at him. “You’re a f..... cop,” he said. “I’ve seen you before. I’ve seen you at Lakemba.”
With each sentence the goon shoved a pool cue into Adam’s side, but he’d given himself away — Adam had never worked at Lakemba. It was a bluff.
Fortunately, Tony the dealer was blinded by the opportunity to make money, which is why he calmed his boys and pulled out a small bag of speed.
“You’re scaring me,” Adam kept saying to the bloke in his face, as he tried to negotiate, settling on a price of $100. When he pulled out his wallet the goon next to him let out a grunt. “You can pick undercover cops,” he said. “You can pick them because they always have real crisp notes.”
Adam cringed, because he’d unwittingly been given two perfectly crisp notes by his bosses. The sight of them set off the room like a barnyard.
“You’re a f.....g cop!” the men kept shouting, as he palmed the drugs and walked out of the room. Tony’s men followed him down the hallway, jabbing pool cues into his back and taunting him as he started his car.