Does law enforcement experience give private investigators a leg up?
My first experience with a PI was while I was on patrol with the Fayetteville Police Department in North Carolina. I was dispatched on a call in which a woman was being followed by a suspicious man.
I’ll bet you know where this is going.
She pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot. The suspicious man parked a few spaces down. When I arrived, I immediately noticed the man’s car—a black Crown Victoria complete with spotlight and police interceptor package. It did not exactly blend into the environment.
Tense and on high alert, I approached the fifty-something gentleman sitting in the Crown Vic. He handed me his PI license and asked me not to tell the woman he was a PI hired by her husband. So, my first opinion of a PI was a person who is a wannabe cop, but lacks the skills to do the job properly.
At that time, I had no intention of ever becoming a PI. But here I am, eight years later, running my own PI business. Although it is a very different job from policing, the transition has been relatively easy. Here’s why:
Entering the private sector with years of relevant experience can only be helpful to a PI starting a business. During my two-and-a-half years as a detective, I investigated more than five-hundred felony cases. I made a lot of mistakes, learned from those mistakes, narrowed down my strengths, improved on my weaknesses, and enhanced my investigative process. I also attended many investigative schools paid for by the police department.
When I left the department and opened my firm, I still had lots to learn. But at least I had a wealth of investigative knowledge and experience behind me—a great head start.
Police officers are held to a high professional standard. It starts in the academy.
In my academy, we had pressed uniforms, shined boots, gear and uniform inspections, physical training, and a lot of little rules like “don’t walk on the grass.” On the street, we had to present a professional bearing even when we were getting cursed out for something we had nothing to do with (which happens a lot).
Police officers are in the public eye every second, and a quick search of YouTube will show you what happens if a cop loses his/her composure. It is a career killer.
Of course, plenty of PIs also adhere to professional codes of conduct and appearance. But those are personal codes, not agency or institutional ones…and they vary widely. Let’s face it, we’ve all met PIs who give the industry a bad name.
For example, Paul Libri of Palmetto, GA. Paul was a licensed private investigator hired to work a missing persons case. For some reason, Paul decided to put on a police uniform complete with radio, gun, and badge, and use his look-alike cop car to make traffic stops. He was arrested for impersonating a police officer.
I once met a PI—at least he claimed to be one—who was not only drunk, but looked like a biker who had not climbed off his motorcycle to shower in years.
Of course, every profession has its weak links, law enforcement included. But police officers have the advantage of being held to a standard of appearance and behavior that is monitored and enforced. Former officers often bring this practice of professionalism to the PI industry.
Police officers meet a lot of people from absolutely all walks of life. Some of the most essential contacts for launching an investigative practice are, of course, attorneys. Not only do cops know lots of attorneys personally; often those attorneys already know the investigator’s reputation and may have seen the investigator testify in court. This is a great way to start off a new firm, or to bring new business to an existing firm.
Other great connections for a PI starting out are police officers—not so you can ask your old buddy for a police report or information on someone, which puts your former colleague in an ethical bind. But having someone to call on to consult on a tough case can be highly valuable. I know police officers/detectives who specialize in areas ranging from traffic crash reconstruction to fraud and homicide. If I am struggling with some aspect of a case—and we all do from time to time—I can pick up the phone and get advice.
Law enforcement isn’t the only profession that produces good investigators. PIs come from various fields, and they bring with them talents that help them become respectable investigators. But in my opinion, there’s no other profession that prepares a person to be a private investigator quite as well as law enforcement.
About the Author:
Christopher Borba owns Emissary Investigative Services, a Roanoke, Virginia investigative agency specializing in due diligence, corporate investigations, and executive background profiles. He served as an infantry paratrooper with the U.S. Army in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He also worked as a patrol officer and a detective with the Fayetteville, NC police department.