High school undercover: Look young and act sullen
The rare police officer who can pass himself off as a student enters a precarious zone between the law and the high-school drug trade. Not to mention homework.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Officer Matt Peringer was certain he had been "outed."
For weeks the baby-faced rookie cop had posed as a Redmond High School student, buying marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs by day and dutifully doing his homework at night. He had adopted the persona of a sullen, disaffected teen and took to wearing baggy jeans and skateboarding T-shirts.
Things were going smoothly until, during a drug buy, he encountered a boy who thought Peringer looked too old to be a high-schooler.
The student asked Peringer the one question that no undercover police officer wants to hear: "Are you a cop?"
"No," Peringer shot back. "Are you?"
The two shared a laugh and the marijuana transaction went through without a hitch. Peringer's stint as "Matt Perry," a long-haired skateboarder with a contempt for authority and an appetite for drugs, would continue unabated for several more weeks.
"It was a pretty nerve-wracking thing. I had to fool the teachers, I had to fool the kids. The only person who knew about it at the school was the principal," Peringer said. "I kind of played the sullen teenager part, so I didn't have to talk much."
By the time Peringer's first assignment as a cop was over, police had arrested five students, including twin brothers, for selling drugs to the undercover officer. Criminal charges were secured thanks to Peringer's testimony and the recordings he made with concealed devices he wore during transactions.
Looking the part
Police departments throughout the state routinely conduct undercover drug operations, but they largely target adult lawbreakers. Undercover operations at schools, like Peringer's work at Redmond High in 2003 and the recent sting at three Federal Way high schools, are rare, police said.
"It's very uncommon locally," said Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. "It's hard to find officers who can pull it off, agewise, and you have to be a department that's big enough that they [the officers] are not going to be recognizable. In the small towns, you are going to have to take a brand-new officer to do it."
The two Federal Way officers who went undercover at three high schools were a 29-year-old woman and 33-year-old man who also were enlisted for their youthful appearance. And like Peringer, they wore trendy clothes and had their hair cut and colored, said Cmdr. Steve Neal.
"They were never questioned once during the entire operation," Neal said. "The timing, the personnel, everything had to be right to pull this off. Not only did they have to look the part, but they have to be able to take on the persona."
The Federal Way operation culminated Thursday with the charges against 12 students and two adults who weren't students. The undercover officers purchased marijuana, Ecstasy, cocaine and the prescription drug oxycodone as well as rifles and semiautomatic handguns, according to police.
But placing undercover officers in high school has drawn criticism. In Los Angeles, where police have been doing such operations since the mid-1970s, the Los Angeles Unified School District found that many of the students arrested were in special education, and critics said the amount of drugs seized was usually small.
"It's scary. You have non-students, non-teachers sneaking around talking to kids," said Jennifer Shaw, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state. "Our kids should be sent to school to learn. To bring somebody in to do undercover investigation is frightening."
An undercover mother
Redmond police Lt. Shari Shovlin had taken part in two high-school stings when she was a police officer in Southern California. She presented the concept to the Redmond chief in 2003 after parents and teachers complained about drug sales at Redmond High.
Peringer had just wrapped up his final classes at the state police academy when Shovlin approached him for the undercover job.
Shovlin said she was certain Peringer, who was 22, could pass for a 16- or 17-year-old.
"If you go back 20 years to '21 Jump Street,' drugs and guns always existed" on high school campuses, Shovlin said, referring to the hit 1980s television show about young cops who worked undercover at high schools. "I think operations like this protect our children."
Shovlin also had a role in the undercover sting: She would pose as Peringer's mother.
Even though Peringer looked the part and had just finished the police academy, he still had a lot to learn about going undercover at a high school.
Growing up in Pullman, Peringer was the son of a police officer. He was a high-school honors student and track star who majored in psychology at Washington State University. Peringer said he had never seen anyone use drugs.
To prepare for his role, he grew his hair long and stuffed it under a beanie cap. He billed the department for his baggy jeans, skateboarding T-shirts and a metal-studded belt from the local PacSun store, which sells clothing popular with surfers and skateboarders. Detectives also gave him a crash course in buying illegal drugs.
On the first day of school, Shovlin explained to a guidance counselor that she and "her teenage son" had just moved from Pullman after her divorce.
"I was slouching in my chair, playing the sullen, upset teenager role," Peringer said.
Peringer didn't have to wait long to make his initial drug buy. He says he was approached by one of Redmond High's biggest drug dealers on his first day of school, even before he had asked anyone about buying marijuana.
Brian Hunter, Redmond High principal at the time, was the only person on campus who knew Peringer's true identity. Police wanted to keep a tight rein on those who knew there was a cop on campus; even teachers weren't told.
Peringer, as Matt Perry, spent his days attending classes, setting up drug buys and making friends with the drug-dealing crowd. Peringer said he was standoffish toward outgoing students who tried to be nice to him. He didn't attend dances, have his photo taken for the yearbook, join sports teams or go to parties, choosing to limit his interaction with the so-called skater crowd.
"I was allowed to do some of those things, but it never came into play. I never became friends with anybody; I was a loner," Peringer said. "People left me alone, which was fine because then I didn't have to tell a lot of lies."
Looking at him funny
Four years later, Peringer is working a late-night patrol beat. Occasionally, he'll run into the former students he attended classes with and even some he bought drugs from.
He has never acknowledged his identity to them, even though he says they "look at me kind of funny."
Although Redmond police have not conducted a similar operation since, some fellow officers tell Peringer his work at the high school had a lasting effect. Students still warn classmates to be careful because there could be an officer in their midst.
Shovlin, whose daughter is in high school, said classmates ask her daughter if there are any police in class with them.
"There is that fear that you'll get caught," Shovlin said. "I'm hoping it has scared them."
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com