SPD explains undercover work at Seahawks games

by: Gary Horcher Updated:

The Cardinal-red Larry Fitzgerald jersey with the number 11 on the back instantly attracted attention — and plenty of comments — outside Century Link Field, as the Arizona fan walked by. "That's totally a cop," said one Seahawks fan, speaking for dozens who eyed the fan suspiciously.

Except for a chorus of boos, Seahawks fans kept a respectful distance from the lone Cardinal fan — who was not a Seattle cop after all.

Trying to spot a jersey-wearing undercover Seattle officer — among 68,000 jersey-wearing, amped-up fans — has become a sport in itself for Seahawks fans clamoring to enter Century Link Field.

That undercover mystique, say Seattle police, is a big reason fans seem to be more civil this season. That fan wearing rival gear could have the authority to arrest you, and police say fewer fans are testing the odds.

Last year was different story. Numerous reports of unprovoked brawls and assaults inspired police to infiltrate the crowd. "We actually had some experiences last year which inspired our deployment this year," said Sean Whitcomb of SPD.

In the Seahawks' pre-season, "Operation Undercover Jersey" was born. SPD officers became the first officers in the country to slip into the crowd undercover, dressed in the away teams' jerseys, jackets and caps.

SPD won't tell KIRO-7 how many undercover officers work any given game, but they do want every fan to be well aware of what they're doing. The publicity, says Whitcomb, is a big part of the operation's success. He believes since the operation has been so publicized, rowdy fans are more hesitant to confront other fans.

"The 'Monday Night Football' game where we trounced the New Orleans Saints, we had some officers out wearing Saints gear. One of those people was Assistant Chief Paul McDonough," Whitcomb said. "Of all people, he's a recognizable guy, he's on the news, he's on the website."

Whitcomb said McDonough got several lectures from fans, but nothing approaching violence.

Like every other undercover cop, McDonough was wearing away-team gear brought on Craigslist with money donated to the nonprofit Seattle Police Foundation. No tax dollars have been spent on the undercover gear. But it's still effective enough that fans can't pick the undercover cops out.

"Honestly, I work for the municipality and they looked like Seattle PD in Raiders jerseys," said Seahawks fan Robert Moore, referring to two clean-cut men wearing Oakland gear.

Since SPD started the operation, officers have seen big changes. They say they've received fewer reports of fan-on-fan violence this year. "I think we've met our goal and we're going to continue throughout the duration of the season and into the playoffs, as the energy increases," Whitcomb said.

But the biggest surprise for SPD is the lack of hard-core hostility in and out of the stadium. Whitcomb told KIRO 7 no undercover cops have been confronted to the point where they had to make an arrest -- or even identify themselves -- this season.

SPD's idea has been adopted by police departments in NFL cities across the country, including San Francisco.

SPD told KIRO-7 several fans have been arrested this season by cops wearing rival jerseys.

Last year, Seattle's Greg Skahill suffered a blind-side bone-crushing blow from another fan during the Seahawks-Packers game. Back then, cops weren't not around inside the stadium to immediately investigate his assault. What does he think about the undercover cops? "I think it's a step in the right direction, but I'd rather see Century Link pay for cameras or the NFL pay extra security to protect people's safety, not police officers," Skahill said.

SPD told KIRO-7 it will stick with what's currently working.

"Of course we understand and want people to have that friendly banter and that competitive spirit," said Whitcomb. "But ultimately we want people to be aware of where the line is and then not cross it!"

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