"Hobocops": Undercover Policing's Deceptive Encounters


  • Jeffrey Monaghan Charleton University
  • Kevin Walby


police investigations, deception, homelessness, cities, distracted driving


Policing cultures have reflected a conservative mindedness, particularly when directed toward street-involved, unhoused persons. Yet alongside an increase in urban poverty across Canada, public police today have taken up a puzzling, disturbing affinity with the identity of homelessness. We explore public police use of an undercover technique called "hobocops". As part of these operations, public police disguise themselves as homeless people holding cardboard signs at busy motor traffic intersections as a way of regulating distracted driving. We explore these practices as encounters between the increasingly everyday activities of covert policing, urban governance, and a sociological account of police engaging in identity co-optation. Detailing how hobocop operations have unfolded in Canada, we contribute to the literature on covert policing by focusing on the operatives of these deceptive encounters rather than the targets. Drawing on the results of freedom of information requests and media reporting, we suggest that hobocop operations are undertaken in part because of police officer enjoyment of enacting the hobo identity. Applying literature on deception in policing and on the degradation of homeless persons, we reflect on the implications of these deceptive encounters for public policing and literature on criminal justice practices.

Author Biography

Jeffrey Monaghan, Charleton University

Jeffrey Monaghan is a Lecturer in the Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa, Canada. His research examines the policing of social movements, surveillance in the context of the 'war on terror', as well the globalization of security governance practices. He has published in numerous journals, including Security Dialogue, Surveillance and Society, Punishment and Society, Current Sociology, Policing and Society, and Social Movement Studies.


Amster, R. (2003). Patterns of exclusion: Sanitizing space, criminalizing homelessness. Social Justice, 30(1), 195-221.

Belina, B., & Helms, G. (2003). Zero tolerance for the industrial past and other threats: Policing and urban entrepreneurialism in Britain and Germany. Urban Studies, 40(9), 1845-1867.

Berti, M., & Sommers, J. (2010). "The streets belong to people that pay for them": The spatial regulation of street poverty in Vancouver, British Columbia. In D. Crocker, & V. M. Johnson (Eds.), Poverty, regulation and social justice: Readings on the criminalization of poverty (pp. 60-74). Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Best, R. (2010). Situation or social problem: The influence of events on media coverage of homelessness. Social Problems, 57(1), 74-91.

Bittner, E. (1967). The police on skid-row: A study of peace keeping. American Sociological Review, 32(5), 699-716.

Bittner, E. (1970). The functions of the police in modern society. Cambridge, Mass: Oelgeschlager, Gunn, & Hain.

Borchard, K. (2010). Between poverty and a lifestyle: The leisure activities of homeless people in Las Vegas. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 39(4), 441-467.

Brodeur, J.P. (1992). Undercover policing in Canada: Wanting what is wrong. Crime, Law and Social Change, 18(1), 105-136.

Brodeur, J. P. (1995). Undercover policing in Canada: A study of its consequences. In C. Fijanut & G. Marx (Eds), Undercover: Police surveillance in comparative perspective (pp. 71-102). The Hague: Kluwer.

Bubandt, N., & Willerslev, R. (2015). The dark side of Eempathy: Mimesis, deception, and the magic of alterity. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 57(1), 5-34.

Calder, M., Richter, S., Burns, K., & Mao, Y. (2011). Framing homelessness for the Canadian public: The news media and homelessness. Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 20(2), 1-19.

Carson, D. (2007). Models of investigation. In T. Newburn, T. Williamson, & A. Wright (Eds.), Handbook of criminal investigation (pp. 388-402). UK: Willan.

Eick, V. (2003). New strategies of policing the poor: Berlin's neo-liberal security system. Policing and Society, 13(4), 365-379.

Ericson, Richard V. (1981). Making crime: A study of detective work. Toronto: Butterworths.

Ericson, R. V. (1982). Reproducing order: A study of police patrol work. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ericson, R. V. (2007). Crime in an insecure world. Chicago: Polity.

Fiske, J. (1999). For cultural interpretation: A study of the culture of homelessness. In E. Min (Ed.), Reading the homeless: The media's image of homeless culture (pp. 1-22). Westport: Praeger.

Fassin, D. (2013). Enforcing order: An ethnography of urban policing. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Feeley, M. M., & Simon, J. (1992). The new penology: Notes on the emerging strategy of corrections and its implications. Criminology, 30(4), 449-474.

Forte, J. (2015). Not in my social world: A cultural analysis of media representations, contested spaces, and sympathy for the homeless. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 29(4), 131-157.

Gaetz, S., Gulliver, T., & Richter, T. (2014). The state of homelessness in Canada: 2014. Toronto: The Homeless Hub Press.

Gallant, J. (2014). Spare change? How about 280? Toronto Star. A3. March 27.

Gibson, T. (2004). Securing the spectacular city: The politics of revitalization and homelessness in downtown Seattle. New York: Lexington Books.

Gibson, D. (2014). Enduring illusions: The social organization of secrecy and deception. Sociological Theory, 32(4), 283-306.

Girod, R. (2014). Advanced criminal investigation and intelligence operations: Tradecraft methods, practices, tactics, and techniques. New York: CRC Press.

Global News. (2016). Panhandlers or police? Regina officers go undercover to nab traffic offenders. June 8.

Goldsmith, A. (2010). Policing's new visibility. British Journal of Criminology, 50(5), 914-934.

Harkin, Diarmaid. (2015). The police and punishment: Understanding the pains of policing. Theoretical Criminology, 19(1), 43-58.

Hier, S., & Walby, K. (2014). Policy mutations, compliance myths, and re-deployable special event public camera surveillance in Canada. Sociology, 48(1), 150-166.

HP (Hamilton Police) (2016-0222). Freedom of Information Act request. Hamilton: Hamilton Police.

Humphreys, A. (2012). No escaping hobo cop. National Post, A3, May 3.

Hutchins, A. (2013). Distracted driving crackdown. Maclean's, October 3. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/society/technology/the-chase-is-on-for-drivers-on-cell-phones-and/

Jacobs, B. (1993). Undercover deceptive clues: A case of restrictive deterrence. Criminology, 31(2), 281-299.

Johnsen, S., & Fitzpatrick, S. (2010). Revanchist sanitisation or coercive care? The use of enforcement to combat begging, street drinking and rough sleeping in England. Urban Studies, 47(8), 1703-1723.

Kawash, S. (1998). The homeless body. Public Culture, 10(2), 319-339.

Kramer, E., & Lee, S. (1999). Homelessness: The other as object. In E. Min (Ed.), Reading the homeless: The media's image of homeless culture (pp. 135-158). Westport: Praeger.

Kraska, P. B. (1996). Enjoying militarism: Political/personal dilemmas in studying US police paramilitary units. Justice Quarterly, 13(3), 405-429.

Kruisbergen, E., de Jong, D., & Kleemans, E. (2011). Undercover policing: Assumptions and empirical evidence. British Journal of Criminology, 51(2), 394-412.

LaFlamme, L. (2012). Sting operation for Ottawa motorists. CTV National News, April 20.

Lee, B., & Farrell, C. (2003). Buddy, can you spare a dime? Homelessness, panhandling, and the public. Urban Affairs Review, 38(3), 299-324.

Loftus, B., & Goold, B. (2011). Covert surveillance and the invisibilities of policing. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 12(3), 275-288.

Loftus, B., Goold, B., & Mac Giollabhui, S. (2016). From a visible spectacle to an invisible presence: The working culture of covert policing. British Journal of Criminology, 56(4), 629-645.

Lunney, D. (2016). That's a ticket: RCMP stand on boulevards to stop texting drivers. Winnipeg Sun, A4, May 01.

Luscombe, A., and Lufty, M. A. (2015). Peeking behind the curtain: Accessing the backstage of security intelligence assembly. In Brownlee, Jamie, & Walby, K. (Eds.), Access to information and social justice: Critical research strategies for journalists, scholars and activists (pp. 133-148). Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing (ARP) Books.

McAvoy, L. (2004). Tackling traffic issues done with twist elsewhere. Toronto Star. G19. February 21.

Mackey, J. (2012). '˜Homeless' cellphone crackdown to expand. Ottawa Citizen. D1. April 21.

Manning, P. (1977). Police work: The social organization of policing (2nd edition). Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press.

Marx, G. (1980). The new police undercover work. Urban Life, 8(4), 399-446.

Marx, G. (1988). Undercover: Police surveillance in America. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Meltzer, B. (2003). Lying: Deception in human affairs. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 23(6), 61-79.

Monaghan, J. (2015). Four barriers to access to information: Perspectives of a frequent user. In Brownlee, Jamie, & Walby, K. (Eds.), Access to information and social justice: Critical research strategies for journalists, scholars and activists (pp. 53-74). Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing (ARP) Books.

Mosher, J. (2002). The shrinking of the public and private spaces of the poor. In J. Hermer, & J. Mosher (Eds.), Disorderly people: Law and the politics of exclusion in Ontario (pp. 41-53). Halifax: Fernwood.

Murray, H. (2000). Deniable degradation: The finger-imaging of welfare recipients. Sociological Forum, 15(1), 39-63.

Nathan, C. (2017). Liability to deception and manipulation: The ethics of undercover policing. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 34(3), 370-388.

O'Grady, B., Gaetz, S., & Buccieri, K. (2013). Tickets and more tickets: A case study of the enforcement of the Ontario Safe Streets Act. Canadian Public Policy, 39(4), 541-558.

O'Neill, M., & Loftus, B. (2013). Policing and the surveillance of the marginal: Everyday contexts of social control. Theoretical Criminology, 17(4), 437-454.

Oleson, T. (2012). BC Mountie poses as beggar to thwart cellphone use while driving. Postmedia News. March 26.

OPS (Ottawa Police Service) (2016-178). Freedom of Information Act request. Ottawa: Ottawa Police Service.

Paperman, P. (2003). Surveillance underground: The uniform as an interaction device. Ethnography, 4(3), 397-419.

Parnaby, P. (2003). Disaster through dirty windshields: Law, order and Toronto’s squeegee kids. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 28(3), 281-307.

RCMP 2016-2199. Access to Information Act request. Ottawa: Government of Canada.

Reiner, R. (1992). The politics of the police (2nd ed.) Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rose, N. (2000). Government and control. British Journal of Criminology, 40(2), 321-339.

Rukavina, Steve. (2015). Montreal cops go undercover as panhandlers to nab texting drivers: Police now say tactic was 'inappropriate'. CBC News. April 17.

Sassen, S. (2014). Expulsions. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Seymour, R. (2015). BC Mountie pretends he's homeless to catch drivers on cellphones. Canadian Press. June 3.

Shields, T. (2001). Network news construction of homelessness: 1980-1993. Communication Review, 4(2), 193-218.

Skolnick, J. (1982). Deception by police. Criminal Justice Ethics, 1(2), 40-54.

Smith, N. (1996). The new urban frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist city. New York: Routledge.

Smith, N. (1998). Giuliani time: The revanchist 1990s. Social Text, 57, 1-20.

Spears, T. (2012). Hobo cop nabs dozens on cellphones. Ottawa Sun, April 19. Retrieved from: http://www.torontosun.com/2012/04/19/hobo-cop-nabs-dozens-on-cellphones

Stuart, F. (2015). On the streets, under arrest: Policing homelessness in the 21st century. Sociology Compass, 9(11), 940-950.

Sylvestre, M. E. (2010). Policing the homeless in Montreal: Is this really what the population wants? Policing & Society, 20(4), 432-458.

Van Maanen, J. (1990). The asshole. In P. K. Manning, & J. Van Maanen (Eds.), Policing: A view from the street (2nd ed.) (pp. 221-237). New York: Random House.

VPD (Victoria Police Department) (2016-178). Freedom of Information Act request. Victoria: Victoria Police Department.

Von Mahs, J. (2005). The sociospatial exclusion of single homeless people in Berlin and Los Angeles. American Behavioral Scientist, 48(8), 928-960.

Wakin, M. (2008). Using vehicles to challenge anti-sleeping Ordinances. City & Community, 7(4), 309-329.

Walby, K., & Larsen, M. (2012). Access to information and freedom of information requests: Neglected means of data production in the social sciences. Qualitative Inquiry, 18(1), 31-42.

Walby, K., & Lippert, R. (2012). Spatial regulation and the aesthetics of the city: Conservation officer policing of homeless people in Ottawa, Canada. Antipode, 44(3), 1015-1033.

Wardhaugh, J. (1996). "Homeless in Chinatown": Deviance and social control in cardboard city. Sociology, 30(4), 701-716.

Warmington, J. (2014). Hobocop is on the case. Toronto Sun, pg. 5, March 26.

White, M., Eiser, J., & Harris, P. (2004). Risk perceptions of mobile phone use while driving. Risk Analysis, 24(3), 323-334.

Williams, J. (2005). The politics of homelessness: Shelter Now and political protest. Political Research Quarterly, 58(3), 497-509.

Wilson, D., & McCulloch, J. (2012). (Un)controlled operations: Undercover in the security control society. In J. McCulloch, & S. Pickering (Eds.), Borders and crime: Pre-crime, mobility and serious harm in an age of globalization (pp. 163-178). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wilson, J., & Kelling, G. (1982). Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. The Atlantic Monthly, March, 29-37.

Wright, J. D. (2009). Address unknown: The homeless in America. New York: AldineTransaction.

Yuen, J. (2014). Toronto police end 'hobocop' distracted driving blitz. Toronto Sun, March 26. Retrieved from: http://www.torontosun.com/2014/03/26/toronto-police-end-hobocop-distracted-driving-blitz