Rookies and veterans alike sometimes blow it in the field. But careful preparation can set you up to avoid spectacular failures—at least, most of the time.
Successful surveillance isn’t just about sharp driving and a snazzy long lens. It’s a skill set that requires multiple sub-skills, from careful planning and laser focus to clear and precise report writing.
No investigator, no matter how experienced or diligent, gets it all right every time. External factors such as heavy case loads, illness and exhaustion, or personal problems at home can affect an investigator’s time on the job. But most of the problems that cause a mission to go south aren’t about in-the-moment fieldwork; they’re about advance work.
Here are a few of the most common mistakes operatives make when planning and implementing a surveillance job:
1. You have no specific objective.
What are the client’s goals for the investigation? Does he want specific intel for a custody case, or does he just “need to know the truth”? Fishing expeditions are, too often, doomed to fail. It’s hard to find anything when you don’t know what you’re looking for. And if the client can’t tell you what information he wants and how he plans to use it, why is he spending the money?
In cases like that, it’s worthwhile to ask the prospective client to reconsider whether he really needs your services (and why).
Sometimes, a client is so emotional that he can’t see things clearly enough to specify his goals to you. In that case, politely ask him to let you deal with his attorney, and keep him out of the loop.
2. You skip the pre-surveillance interview.
The best way to waste your time and the client’s money is to head out on surveillance with no information. You’ll want more than just the subject’s name and the target vehicle make and model. Any details you learn about the subject’s schedule and habits, favorite hangouts, friends, and addresses he might frequent will only increase your chances of success. And asking for a GOOD photo is essential.
You know that sinking sensation you get when you lose the subject but have zero idea of where he might go next? A thorough intake interview can help you avoid that feeling. Even worse: learning that the subject has a restraining order on your client, and you’ve just violated it. A question on that topic might not yield an honest answer, but your client’s evasive response might send up read flags about whether you should take this case.
3. You don’t map out the area in advance.
Which route will the subject take to drive to work? Are there multiple possibilities? Is this a gated community? And where will you set up stationary surveillance without being observed by the subject or his neighbors? It’s far better to answer these questions before you begin actual surveillance—the better to avoid wasting your first day out.
4. You (or your vehicle) are much too interesting.
You know this already: Cool cars don’t work for surveillance. You may have dreamed all your life of driving a 1963 Sting Ray. Do that during your off hours. On surveillance, drive a vehicle that disappears into the environment.
In a leafy suburb, you want a minivan or a small SUV. (Not lime green.) In rural Texas, a pickup truck will fit right in.
The same goes for you, if you’re on foot: Look boring. Dress like someone nobody will notice. Cool will not work. And if you’re just naturally gorgeous, well, you can’t help that. But try to tone it down a bit—disguise your splendor with a hat and some frumpy jeans.
And please, please do not dress in 5.11 tactical wear. This fools nobody.
5. You assume the position, but then you move.
Once you’ve chosen a stationary surveillance point, stick with it. Changing spots will only attract attention. If you’re not thrilled with the spot you chose, make the most of it; otherwise, leave for awhile and come back later—preferably, in a different vehicle.
Obviously, you’re going to do all your dining and excreting right where you sit, so prepare yourself accordingly.
6. You get distracted.
As we all know by now, paying attention for long hours is waaay harder than it sounds. Let’s be real: It’s hideously boring to sit for ten hours and watch a closed garage door. But the 25 seconds you spend scrolling through your Twitter feed are the 25 seconds that the door rolls open and your subject exits.
You wouldn’t text and drive, so don’t text and surveil—or at least, keep the electronic distractions to a minimum. We humans think we are brilliant multitaskers, but in truth, we are not.
7. You bungle the money shot.
Everyone has done this: You’ve been sitting for eight hours straight, doing nothing. And then It Happens…but it’s 99 degrees, your hands are sweaty, your foot is asleep, and you’ve fallen into the torpid complacency of a tee-ball right fielder.
You saw IT happen, but your recording device didn’t. By the time you grabbed the camera, dropped it onto the floorboard, groped around for it, and picked it up again, IT was all over.
Constant vigilance for an unbroken stretch of time is nearly impossible for the human mind to manage. We all miss things. But if you’ve got your camera ready to go on a tripod or mount so that all you have to do is switch on and shoot, you’ll be less likely to miss IT when it happens. And if you do get the footage, IT might actually be viewable, the picture in focus and steady.
8. You don’t pack backups.
Success! IT is happening, and you are recording the money shot! And then the money shot goes on for quite a long time. Your battery light is flashing or your data card is nearly full. And you don’t have a replacement stash.
Not a good feeling.
9. You lose the subject.
Any operative who claims this has never happened to them is a rookie or a tale-teller. It will happen, even to the veterans. The only remedy is to adhere to best practices and hope for the best: Stay fairly close in high-traffic urban areas, and give the subject some space in deserted rural areas.
Memorize the tail-light pattern (at night) or any distinguishing features of the car (during the day). And knowing the area well (you’ve mapped it out in advance, right?) can help you avoid such face-palm errors as following a subject down a dead-end road or in a U-turn. Knowing and using the parallel streets will allow you to keep pace without being constantly in view.
10. You get burned.
Any operative who claims this has never happened to them is a rookie or a tale-teller. It will happen, even to the veterans. See best practices above.
But also, there’s this: Many times, when you get burned, you come to find out that the subject knew he was being surveilled. Maybe you’re not the first PI working this case, or perhaps the client let the truth slip in an argument with the subject. Either way, this is intel that should have come out in the intake interview. “Have any other investigators worked this case?” should always be on your question list, as should this one: “Is there any reason to believe [the subject] may know I’m watching?”
Knowing those things will change your strategy entirely.
11. You break a law and ruin your case.
If you trespass, invade someone’s privacy, or violate a restraining order (see #2: the pre-surveillance interview), your mission has failed. Broken laws = tainted evidence = no help to your case = an angry attorney. Do not cut corners. Keep it legal and ethical, always.
12. You half-@$$ the investigative report.
OK, so technically this isn’t a surveillance failure, per se. But if you don’t deliver a clear, actionable report to your client (or the attorney), then your surveillance mission was all for naught. It isn’t enough to snag a few minutes of video; the video has to be clear and time/date stamped, legally shot, and put into proper context, by means of your written report.
A good investigative report includes a brief summary of the findings, then describes the investigator’s activities and observations in detail. Write in clear and precise English, skip the jargon, and use active voice. Spell check. Review your report carefully and be sure your sentences and deductions make sense.
This is your final product, the only part of your work that the client sees. It doesn’t matter how well you perform on surveillance if your report-performance is a bust. Make it count.
Nobody gets it right every time. But veteran operatives know themselves and understand their own limitations. They do the advance work to set themselves up for a good performance in the field and avoid the most egregious surveillance mistakes.
Once you’re out there, you can’t control what happens. What you can control is how well you prepare.