She sought a hardship transfer in August, but nothing came of it.
In March, as she sat in her car before a shift, she began swallowing prescribed muscle relaxants. The police found her the next day, unconscious from what she said was a failed suicide attempt.
“I just wanted to rest,” Detective Sasso, 43, said in a recent interview, after her release from a hospital. “Get away from everything and just rest.”
Detective Sasso’s suicide attempt was seen by other detectives as a potent, if extreme, illustration of the difficulties plaguing undercover units at a time when the New York Police Department’s head count is diminished, but the demand for arrests has never been higher.
Of the 120 or so undercover officers in the Organized Crime Control Bureau, which runs most of the department’s undercover operations, there is widespread dissatisfaction among the ranks, according to interviews with nearly a dozen current or recently retired detectives, including several assigned to undercover units.
About 40 undercover officers or detectives have pending requests to be transferred out, said one police official in Brooklyn who works with undercover officers, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Michael J. Palladino, the head of the detectives’ union, said, “Once you’re in, there’s no way out.”
The job generally attracts young officers with three to five years of experience. After an interview process, which involves a role-playing component, applicants undergo a month of training, including crash courses on street drugs, and lessons on how to affect the mannerisms of an addict.
Most candidates tend to be black or Hispanic; police officials say that many minority drug dealers are more likely to suspect white customers of being undercover officers. Detective Sasso is white.
The work is not glamorous. Their efforts are aimed at those who sell drugs or guns, making their jobs inherently dangerous.
They are constantly at risk of being robbed, and some have been killed by the suspects they hoped to arrest; they even face the risk of being shot by fellow officers who occasionally mistake them for armed criminals.
In 1994, a white off-duty officer, Peter Del-Debbio, mistakenly shot Desmond Robinson, a black officer who was working in a plainclothes unit, at a subway station in Manhattan. In 1998, Sean Carrington, an undercover detective, was killed in a Bronx drug operation. In 2003, two undercover detectives with the Firearms Investigation Unit, James V. Nemorin and Rodney J. Andrews, were executed by a man they believed was going to sell them guns on Staten Island.
Detectives Carrington, Nemorin and Andrews were also black — underscoring the racial disparity between those who work under cover and their supervisors.
“Who are the undercover officers?” Mr. Palladino said. “Hard-working minority men and women who grew up in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city who chose to come into the N.Y.P.D., to try to make a difference. And the N.Y.P.D. uses them.”
In the small but elite firearms unit, which accepts only experienced undercover officers, most of whom intend to make a career out of that kind of work, there has not been a white undercover officer in several years, according to three former detectives from the unit. They say that the supervisors are overwhelmingly white.
The organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care has long discouraged minority officers from volunteering for undercover assignments — exacerbating the shortage of new undercover detectives; only about a dozen or so are trained each year, one investigator said.
The pressures of undercover work, and the desire to escape it, hung in the periphery of the 2006 fatal police shooting of Sean Bell in Queens.
Gescard F. Isnora, the undercover detective who fired the first of the 50 police bullets at Mr. Bell’s vehicle, testified in a departmental trial that three months before the Bell shooting, he had sought to leave undercover work, even seeking a demotion to return to patrol. He explained at his trial, held last year, how two recent undercover operations had ended violently — one with his partner shooting at a man — and he acknowledged not wanting to buy drugs anymore.
Mr. Isnora was fired because he was found to have acted improperly in the Bell shooting.
Undercover assignments come with the promise of a detective’s gold shield within 18 months, and a transfer out of undercover work after another 18 months, Mr. Palladino said. But some undercover officers end up working several years beyond that before being allowed to “flip,” police parlance for leaving undercover work.
Mr. Palladino is now lobbying state legislators in Albany to create a cap on the number of years that officers spend under cover.
Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the Police Department, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Detectives said that besides low morale and burnout, another downside of such a long stint was an increased chance of being recognized.
“There are only a certain amount of times you can go to the same housing projects,” one Brooklyn detective said.