Skip to content
Home » What Drug Dealers Taught Me About Trust: Pamela Barnum (Transcript)

What Drug Dealers Taught Me About Trust: Pamela Barnum (Transcript)

Pamela Barnum at TEDxCollingwood

Following is the full text of former undercover police officer Pamela Barnum’s talk titled “What Drug Dealers Taught Me About Trust” at TEDxCollingwood conference. In this talk, she shares three trust hacks she learned while working in dangerous and unpredictable situations that we can apply in our everyday lives.


Can I trust you? This question has the potential to impact every part of our lives, from who we love to how we learn, how we take care of our health and invest our money.

And, if mastered, building trust strengthens relationships and can improve our health and lead to more financial success.

Now, it may seem strange to learn about trust from someone who spent an entire career pretending to be someone she wasn’t. For years, I woke up and stepped into an underworld, and sometimes in leather pants, that could not know who I was.

Being beaten, raped or even killed were possibilities if that was the day a drug dealer found out that I was an undercover police officer.

What’s even stranger is that, unlike in the movies, I rarely carried a gun, and I never wore a wire for my protection. Trust — and the ability to build and maintain trust — was the only weapon I used.

My goal is to present a learnable skill to you so that you can then build the foundation of trust around everything you do because when you leverage trust hacks, it makes risky, stressful relationships easier, even the ones with your in-laws.

Before I became an undercover officer, I had to attend this intense training course. You take it and you learn about techniques on how to use drugs, and what the pricing is, and the terminology, and you learn about building trust.

Although they don’t call it “trust building,” that’s essentially what you learn. And you have to learn it in really uncomfortable and often unpredictable situations. So for example, tough biker-looking officers are taken to gay bars, and young female rookie officers, are taken to busy strip clubs.

Now, it’s been quite a few years, so if you’re having trouble connecting the dots, I was the one who went to the busy strip clubs. About 48 hours remained in a long term, about 10-month-long undercover project, and we were getting ready for all of our rips.

And rips are essentially what they sound like. You order up a large quantity of drugs, and then you go to meet the dealer and you rip them off. Sounds fun, right?

It usually is, unless it means you have to jump out of a moving car being driven by a really angry drug dealer. When that happens, it’s nothing like on TV. I didn’t roll and tuck and gracefully spring into action. I just fell out, like a bag of cement.

Later on, a drug dealer was calling and threatening to kill my partner. My partner was actually an undercover officer that I met for the very first time when we were assigned to live together as husband and wife.

[read more]

Now undercover eventually went under the covers and we got married for real at the end of the project. We call it our “government prearranged marriage,” and I’m happy to report that almost two decades later, we are still in a happy and very trusting relationship, and no one has called and threatened to kill him, at least recently. So, life has progressed quite happily.

Now, when you’re thinking about these trust hacks, you’re wondering “Do I have to put myself in danger to learn this?” Absolutely not. Just think of me as your stunt double as we journey through some examples of trust hacks.

Keep in mind that I have changed the names to protect the not-so-innocent. Julie – not her real name – was a full time bartender and a part-time drug dealer who had connections to the Hell’s Angels. But that’s not what made her so interesting.

Every night, I’d go to the bar and I’d sit and listen, trying to overhear conversations that’d provide some perspective and information about the local drug scene. I learned a lot about that, but what I learned even more was how to become an effective, active listener.

Julie was incredible at this. She would lean in and ask questions for clarification; she’d nod and utter affirmations, mirror their body language, and as a result she has built some really great relationships and got a lot of information.

But the piece that really stood out for me, because all of those are great ingredients for a wonderful listener, but the piece that really stood out was that Julie let go of all pre-judgement. She didn’t pre-judge anyone when she was speaking with them.

And when we let go of pre-conceived ideas about what a drug dealer should be like, or what our spouse, our kids, our partners, co-workers should be like, we make room for new ideas.

And even more importantly, we build a bridge of trust that enables the other person to feel heard and valued. Although active listening is an important trust hack, it’s also one of the easiest, yet least frequently used hacks.

I use all of the techniques that I learned from Julie when I started to connect with her. And as a result, I became Julie’s trusted confidante and she introduced me to Frank, the dealer with the biker connections.

And after being introduced on the phone, we decided to set up a meeting. So, I go to Frank’s “place of business” which is this huge Victorian home that now was a flophouse.

If you’ve ever seen a horror flick or been to a haunted house, maybe you’re able to visualize this once grand old mansion that had become a flophouse.

But what you’re not able to appreciate is the smell. Think old cat urine, bacon grease, stale beer, and human waste, all blended into this overwhelming stench that greets you at the front door.

As I’m climbing three flights of very dimly lit stairs, every step I take creeks, announcing to anyone listening — and they didn’t even have to be actively listening — that I was approaching.

Drug dealers are a funny group of business people. They don’t like unannounced visitors at their place of business. So I thought it best that I let them know that I was coming.

“Hi!” I called up the stairs, in my best “I’m-a-badass- drug-dealer” voice, although I sounded more like the hotel chambermaid calling “Housekeeping!”.

But I continued moving forward, and with every step I took, I reminded myself: “I’ve got this.” When I finally reached the door, and I was about to knock, it opens, so, I take a step in.

Then it quickly closes behind me. I can hear the deadbolt turn and a chain slide across, locking me in. When my eyes finally adjust, I see the guy who had locked me in. He was at least six inches taller, 150 pounds heavier. He wore a bandanna, a black leather biker vest, and jeans that even a plumber would know needed to be pulled back up.

Then, all of a sudden, I feel pressure up against me. I look down and see this huge dog with his snout and his drool everywhere. There are two other guys who look remarkably similar to Thing One and Thing Two, at a table, packaging cocaine, with another of Satan’s hounds at their feet.

There are three dogs — well, three drug dealers, two dogs, guns, drugs, and me. So I pull out the only weapon I have, the trust hack of confidence. I get into the zone. I stood tall, hands on my hips, feet shoulder-width apart.

Think of Wonder Woman without the impractical bodysuit or crown, although the Truth lasso would have been a really nice touch. I look over.


Thing One, “Yeah, you’re Pam?”

“Uh, yes. Do you have my package?”

Within moments, he’s handing me an ounce of cocaine and I give him $1,600 and almost simultaneously, I hear the chain come off the slide, the deadbolt turn and the door opens,

Sounding nothing like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I said, “I’ll be back for more.”

I took the time coming up the stairs to build my confidence by repeating positive affirmations like: “I’ve got this.” I slowed my breathing and not just because of the stench.

Once inside, I realized that I was outnumbered and unarmed, but I didn’t focus on negative what-ifs. Instead I chose to remind myself about all of the successful and safe drug deals I had already made.

Now, most of you will never be locked in a drug house with armed drug dealers. But many of you will face risks and challenges every day, that requires confidence to build trusting relationships.

And I would encourage you to think about a time where you had to act in the face of uncertainty, or fear, or even danger, and you did it anyway. You all have examples of that.

So the next time you’re facing a challenge, and you need to move forward, use those past accomplishments as a reminder of what you’re capable of, and allow that to push you toward the unknown.

Now, confidence is a very powerful trust hack. But you take trust building to the next level when you pair it with empathy. Sherry was at the beginning of her drug dealing career when I met her.

And she shared with me, during one evening of packaging cocaine at her place, that she came from a history of abuse, which is a very similar story for a lot of women who become involved in the drug industry.

And as we’re packaging this cocaine, if you can visualize this coffee table with little piles of cocaine, and we have the pestle and mortar, and we’re crushing everything, and we’re measuring out the baggies, Sherry’s cat comes walking toward us.

Sherry looks over, “Don’t let my cat near the coke! Last time he ate some and he was whacked for weeks!”

However, the months go by, and it’s actually Sherry who’s using a lot of cocaine because she’s whacked for months, and she accumulates a debt that she cannot pay. She ends up getting kicked out of her apartment and calls me in a panic. “Pam, you’ve got to come and take Kitty. I’ve got a place to couchsurf but they won’t let me bring Kitty. You’re the only person I trust to watch him.”

I took the cat, but it complicated a lot of things. First of all, I was an undercover police officer who had gathered enough evidence that Sherry was likely facing a very lengthy prison sentence. She wouldn’t be needing an apartment any time soon and she certainly wouldn’t be bringing her cat.

Secondly, we were just days away, not weeks, but days from arresting her and dozens of other drug dealers who had sold to my partner and I.

What was I going to do with this cat? Cocaine Kitty was not a part of my plan. But I recognized how important Kitty was to Sherry, so I worked hard to make arrangements for Kitty to be taken care of at the end of the project.

Now on Take Down Day, all of the accused are arrested simultaneously in a series of pre-dawn raids. And then they’re brought to the police station where they come into an interview room one by one, and meet with the undercover officer who they thought was a fellow drug dealer.

You can imagine what that’s like from both perspectives. Some people come into the room, see you, and are so shocked that they are speechless. Others start crying and sobbing because they know what’s ahead.

Most start yelling and swearing and cursing, and you’re so grateful that they are handcuffed. Sherry just sat in her chair, looked up at me and said, “Thanks for looking after Kitty.”

I learned about trust hacks working one on one, or in groups of people, but everything happened in person. And our world has changed considerably with the onset of everything happening online, including the majority of our communications.

When people can hide behind a screen, they’re not as accountable as they are in person. In a very noisy space, filled with countless tweets, blogs, emails, shares and likes, it’s easy to stop listening.

But the trust hack of active listening is even more important online. And you can demonstrate it when you respond to someone in a timely fashion. It shows that you’re interested and engaged.

And when you respond with a conversational tone, it provides context and clarity, and that goes even farther toward building trust.

We can demonstrate confidence online when we refuse to participate in the comparison game that so many people fall prey to, on social media. Confident people know their worth. They don’t need to compare themselves with others. Instead they shine a light on others.

With a virtual world, filled with cyberbullies, trolls, and detached voyeurs, building trust is even more critical. We have the opportunity, with our limitless access to friends and even strangers around the world, to mirror the compassionate environment that we all deserve to live in.

My hope is that you choose to ignore the Dooms Day headlines about a post-trust era, and instead start looking for ways to experiment with trust hacks and work toward building trust.

Imagine the ripple effect, if each of us worked more toward building trust instead out of shouting that it no longer exists. Because we need to make a purposeful and concerted effort to build trust along every step of our journey. To think otherwise leaves so much behind.

We have it within our power, today, to begin a revolution of trust. It begins with trust hacks and it begins with me and you.

Thank you.

Resources for Further Reading: 

Designing For Trust: Dan Ariely at TEDxPorto (Transcript)

The Psychology of Trust: Anne Böckler-Raettig (Full Transcript)

How to Build (and Rebuild) Trust: Frances Frei (Full Transcript)

Trust in Business: Joshua Konowe at TEDxTauranga (Full Transcript)

Marina Abramović: An Art Made of Trust, Vulnerability and Connection at TED Talks (Transcript)


Related Posts