How do private investigators do surveillance? It depends on the investigator. Here’s one PI’s take:
I receive numerous phone calls asking the same question:
How do you do surveillance?
One woman who called recently said she’d been trying to follow her husband. (I assume for infidelity reasons.) But, in her words, “Other cars keep getting in my way, and I always lose him. Do you guys not let that happen … or something?”
Despite what you see in movies and television, cars get in our way, too.
So how do private investigators do surveillance?
It depends on the investigator.
There is no definitive how-to book on surveillance. The way an investigator does surveillance is often a reflection of his personality. If he is careless, aggressive, or anxious, then there’s a good chance those traits will be visible in his cases. If he’s measured and observant, that’ll show, too.
So, how do I do surveillance?
I am patient.
When you’re on surveillance, time doesn’t fly. It creeps.
Surveillance has made me a much more patient person. Not just while doing cases. It’s made me more patient at home, in public and private life, and pretty much whenever I deal with people.
I’m comfortable waiting. In fact, I really enjoy it. Waiting gives me a chance to observe things. I listen to conversations and watch behavior.
I don’t think an impatient person could do this job. It would be like someone who’s afraid of flying working as a flight attendant.
I trust my judgment.
Most of the time, surveillance is done solo. An investigator works alone and operates independently. You choose your own strategies. It’s not an office environment where you can easily bounce ideas off co-workers or refer to a policy manual.
In surveillance, there’s not always a right answer, just answers that turn out to be right.
When I work a case, I try to make decisions thoughtfully, not rashly — even when I need to decide quickly. I analyze and calculate. I consider all my options. If there’s a better formula for trusting your own judgment, I haven’t found it.
I’m comfortable anywhere.
Surveillance happens everywhere: blighted urban environments, rural farming communities, suburban neighborhoods, and corporate office parks.
I certainly don’t enjoy some of the places I go, but I always seem to settle in. I’ve had weeks where I went from a high-crime public housing development to an isolated coal mining operation. You never know where this job is going to take you.
Learning to adapt to different environments is part of the job’s charm.
I make good decisions, fast.
The person you’re following doesn’t leave you breadcrumbs. Maintaining surveillance is contingent upon your ability to make good decisions quickly.
A moment of indecisiveness will lead to your subject being lost in traffic, a parking garage, an off-ramp, etc.
Surveillance doesn’t give you mulligans. All you can do is quickly process your environment and commit to your decision.
I am thoughtful.
I suppose thoughtfulness isn’t a prerequisite to do this job. But since this is about how I do surveillance, I felt it should be included.
I care about my reputation. I also care about the general reputation of private investigators (which is sketchy).
I’ve never seen an investigator benefit from making others feel uncomfortable or by using intimidation. When I work a case, I try to be thoughtful of the other people in the neighborhood who are unconnected to the reasons I’m there.
Being polite, friendly, and considerate has gotten me far on cases. Part of this job is convincing (not coercing) people to offer information. In my experience, people generally like being helpful, but not if you make them feel uncomfortable. If the neighborhood or local law enforcement turns on you, then you aren’t doing the job properly. A private investigator isn’t a bully; he’s a diplomat.
Besides, it’s just not in my personality to intimidate people. I try to be as genuine as possible while maintaining discretion and privacy – that’s what works for me.
So what’s the secret of surveillance?
Surveillance isn’t a DIY activity for non-professionals (which is unfortunate for the woman who called me).
The secret isn’t fancy equipment, cutting-edge technology, or tradecraft trickery. It just takes experience, good mentoring, and someone with the proper mentality to perform the job.
It takes a long time to become a good surveillance investigator. But if you have the right personality, you’ll eventually develop a feel for it. You’ll see the road better and be able to anticipate the movement of traffic. You’ll learn to make better decisions more quickly.
Novice investigators experience anxiety during cases. They always think their subject is aware of surveillance, and it’s often a self-fulfilling prophecy. This paranoia disappears over time with enough experience.
At times this job can be fun. It can be interesting and it can be rewarding … but it’s never easy.
A version of this article first appeared at the Flagship Investigative Services blog.
About the Author:
Matthew Grotkowski is a Pennsylvania private investigator with extensive experience conducting investigations for insurance companies, law firms, corporations, and government agencies. Before founding Flagship Investigative Services, LLC in 2013, he worked as an investigator for a nationally respected private security, investigation and risk management consulting firm in Pittsburgh, PA.
You can see more of his writing at the Erie Private Investigator Blog.