Wisdom from a veteran PI: Why being a female investigator has its advantages, and how to tell right from wrong in an industry that sometimes blurs the lines
When Norma Tillman started her career in law enforcement, she had to learn fast how to play up her advantages. At 5’2″, she’d never be as physically strong as most of her male colleagues. But she had mad skills: Diplomacy. Tenacity. Smarts. And a healthy self-esteem that valued team play over competition. In a word, she knew how to make allies.
In part two of our profile of Tillman, PursuitMag editor Kim Green asks the veteran investigator to share a little accumulated wisdom about a PI’s life, ethics, and investigating while female.
KIM: What are the pros and cons to being a female PI?
NORMA: If anything, being a private investigator, it makes me more non-threatening. I think my Southern accent and my mannerism and my ability to understand what that person is thinking helps me a whole lot. I don’t have a problem picking up the phone and talking to a total stranger.
I never really think about being female. When I worked in law enforcement, there was a lot of prejudice against women. I went through the police academy back in 1978, one of five women, and there were 40 officers in the class. There were not a lot of women.
The first day I was pulled aside, and (they) said, “Lady, I don’t know who let you in here. But we don’t like you, and I hope you don’t come back tomorrow.” That was the nicest they ever treated me, so I was determined they weren’t going to run me off or discourage me. Every time they mistreated me, I would think, “Thank you, you’ve made me a stronger person.”
Forget that I'm only 5'2" and I don't weigh 200 pounds. I've got a brain and I can find things in the computer you can't find.
What I learned was to be on the team, so they didn’t think of me as a female or a male. We’re all in this together. We’re all going after the same thing. Forget that I’m only 5’2″ and I don’t weigh 200 pounds. I’ve got a brain and I can find things in the computer you can’t find.
I wanted to be a team player, not a competitor. One of the five ladies in the class was crying one day, and she said, “I hate you.” And I said, “Why?” She said, “Because you can shoot a gun and I can’t.” And I said, “But you can run five miles and not break a sweat, and I can’t, and I don’t hate you.” After that day, we were friends from then on, and still are today.
KIM: Do you have any pro tricks for convincing people to share information?
NORMA: There’s an art and a technique to asking questions.
I called the American Embassy in Venezuela one time and asked to speak to the military attaché. I said, “I’m trying to find a gentleman that was in the Venezuelan National Guard back in the 1950s. I thought maybe you could help me?” This guy had fathered a son 28 years ago, and the son wanted to see his father.
“How do I know who you are and that what you’re doing is legitimate?” the attaché said. I convinced him, “This is legitimate. This guy’s going to be very happy if you can get in touch with him.”
“Let me see what I can do,” he said. A day or two later, he calls back. “If you ever need a partner, I’m your man,” he said. “This man was thrilled to death when I talked to him. He can’t wait to see his son again. This was such a thrill for me.”
I’ve learned to, whatever I need, explain it as briefly as I can. If I ask too many questions, they get on guard, thinking, “This is not right.”
I love the experience of tracking someone down, just with a phone call or a computer. I don’t even get out of my pajamas, usually. I can do this lying in bed with a laptop.
KIM: How are you different than what the world thinks a private investigator is?
NORMA: Most of the public thinks what they see on TV is the way private investigators are. Remember how Magnum, P.I. drove a red Ferrari and wore a flowered Hawaiian shirt? That’s not the way it really is. We rent cars sometimes, just so (people) won’t see us in the same car. We don’t wear anything that will draw attention. We want to be invisible.
The detectives you see on TV aren’t trying to be invisible. That’s one thing that’s different.
Another thing is, when I worked surveillances, there was never the perfect parking place waiting when I drove up. On TV, you always just drive in, park, and within five minutes, the suspect is in view. And you take off on a moving surveillance, and you never lose them. In real life, it takes a lot longer.
We don’t solve a crime in one hour, like they do on TV. Finding that observation parking place is hard. A moving surveillance is very difficult. And today, the state of Tennessee doesn’t allow us to use tracking devices. They’re illegal, and without a tracking device on a car, it takes 3 or 4 detectives, maybe, on a moving surveillance. You don’t see that on TV.
Sitting there all night, it’s not easy. You can’t get out, and you can’t leave—you learn to take care of nature. I always carry plenty of food and water. I always make sure I have plenty of batteries, and back in the old days, film. You had 2 or 3 cameras, so in case something happened to one, you have backup. You always had a full tank of gas when you started out. There’s just so many things you have to think of. It’s not glamorous.
KIM: Why do you think people have such a negative impression of what PIs do?
NORMA: There are private eyes who will do anything to get what they need. I always say, if you have to lie, cheat, or steal, you’re not a good investigator. There’s the right way to do it, and there’s the wrong way. You don’t have to break the law and you don’t have to bend. You don’t take something off that fruit of the forbidden tree because it taints your case and it’ll ruin you.
I always say, “This is Norma Tillman. I’m a private investigator. I need your help.” I don’t have to lie to get what I’m going after. I get it by telling the truth. If you have to do a pretext, to me, you’re telling a lie, and that information that you’re getting probably shouldn’t be admissible.”
There are private eyes who will do anything to get what they need. I always say, if you have to lie, cheat, or steal, you're not a good investigator.
Recently, I sent one of my private eyes out on a surveillance, and the person came out and shot his car up. Later on, I heard the other side of the story. He was on private property when the person shot at him. He was trespassing.
You just have to know the law and know when not to cross that line. There’s some that don’t know the difference, but there’s some that wouldn’t cross it for anything.
There are bad apples in every profession. It’s not different than being a stock broker or a doctor, a nurse, or anything else. You’re going to have some that aren’t going to do it right. I think the ones I know are more professional than they are not professional.
To hear an excerpt of our conversation with Norma Tillman, check out our podcast:
See part 1 of this interivew: Norma Tillman—People Finder & Accidental PI
Norma Tillman is president of the Tennessee Association of Licensed Professional Investigators, author of several how-to books on private investigations, and a frequent speaker at PI conferences, in classrooms, and even on Oprah.