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Private Investigator Safety During Surveillance

  • March 11, 2021
  • by Stephanie Irvine
  • Articles

Private investigators can often be put in dangerous situations, especially if they are gathering evidence for a suspected crime or contentious domestic situation, such as child custody or a cheating spouse. While many private investigators come from a background in law enforcement or the military, not all have had the benefit of defensive training to protect themselves. With the recent news of a private investigator getting viciously attacked in Illinois while surveilling a subject, it’s important now more than ever to review some safety tips to keep in mind while on the job.

Be aware of your surroundings

Be aware of your surroundings

Sometimes while surveilling a subject, investigators can get so wrapped up in watching their subject that they get tunnel vision and forget to be aware of their own surroundings. When a person (PI or otherwise) neglects their surroundings, they are vulnerable to those with bad intentions. This is why investigator Gregory Todd urges investigators to, “Stay aware of what is going on.”

By taking a moment to check-in and keep a watchful eye on surroundings, an investigator is better prepared to handle any situations that may come their way. Setting a reminder on your phone may help those working solo to stop and look around.

Additionally, having a partner can be incredibly helpful. Not only does this allow for an investigator to always have eyes on the subject, but it offers an extra set of eyes to see what is going on around them. It is imperative that investigators be cognizant of the setting they’re in as well as the subject.



While simply being aware can go a long way, positioning matters as well. Investigators should take care to allow for defensive moves should they need to take them. Obviously, investigators need to be positioned to be able to surveil a subject, but ensuring their own safety should also be a priority.

If surveilling in an enclosed place, investigators should take note of the entrances and exits and ensure they do not have their back to the door. This way, they know if someone is approaching them as individuals will not be approaching from behind. Investigator Pat McManus advised, “As much as possible, I try to position myself in a way that allows for a defensive response [and] then access the environment for a backup plan, nearest safe place, etc.”

A representative from MIS Research Group encouraged investigators with the following practical advice: “Always position yourself in a way that you can hit the pedal if you need to. Keep your head on a swivel. If approached and you decide you are going to speak to them, open the window ONLY a little. When you arrive on site, always lock your doors, especially in dangerous areas, [and] stay in the front seat.”

Personal protection

Personal protection

Carrying items for personal protection can be helpful in the event that an investigator is attacked. This can be anything from non-lethal forms of protection, such as pepper spray or a taser (where legal), to firearms. For those trained and experienced with firearms, having a firearm on their person can be reassuring in that they know it is there if they need it. Several investigators encouraged others to carry firearms as a means of protection, especially while surveilling a subject. Practicing safety with ballistics is also important.

Private investigators should also consider wearing body armor while surveilling a subject, and especially when surveilling one who is known to be dangerous. Not only does this provide physical safety, but it can also provide investigators with peace of mind that they are protected. By eliminating the fear and anxiety that can creep up when dealing with a dangerous subject, investigators can focus on the job at hand and ensure they are able to perform should they be faced with harm.

Protection can also come in the form of preparation. By having a dashcam and/or body camera, investigators may discourage would-be assailants from taking action. Furthermore, body cameras and dash cameras can provide much-needed evidence in the event an investigator later needs to pursue criminal charges against an attacker.

First aid preparation

First aid preparation

Anyone who owns a first aid kit will say that they hope to never use it, but if they do, they are glad it’s there. In the event that an investigator is hurt on the job, they should first call emergency services. However, other first-aid materials, such as a tourniquet, may be helpful while waiting for the ambulance in the event an investigator is hurt badly. Having an extensive first aid kit is also good to have in case of accidents and not just attacks. Basic first-aid training is useful on and off the job, and PIs should consider taking a course if they are not familiar with what to do in a situation that requires first aid.

Additional training and licensure training

Additional training and licensure training

Some states require private investigators to take a training course in order to attain and retain the mandated licensure. This can be helpful in teaching investigators some basic safety precautions as well as things that they need to know to do the job. This type of training is usually listed with the government agency that issues licensure. It can be through an association, a private investigations company, or in some cases through the government.

Investigators could also engage with a mentor to learn tips and skills while on the job. Mentorships are great ways for investigators to gain the experience they need in a hands-on manner.

Finally, investigators who have never undergone any type of formal defensive training should consider taking a course. There are a number of ways that investigators can invest in training, from consulting their state or regional investigator association to looking into defensive classes put on by local police departments, karate studios, and even fitness centers.

Stay safe!

The priority for investigators should always be to preserve their own safety and the safety of those around them. No case is ever worth losing your life. Hopefully, these tips will arm investigators with the knowledge and tools they need to stay safe on the job.

Join the Discussion

What do you do to stay safe as a private investigator in the field? Share your experience by joining our groups on LinkedIn and Facebook or contact us.

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