Tips for Interacting with the Police as a Private Investigator
- June 09
- by Stephanie Irvine
Although private investigators mostly work independently from local law enforcement agencies, there are times in which private investigators will need to work with or interact with the police. Most times, there is mutual respect and the two can do their work without interference from one another. In order to do so, private investigators might want to consider the following tips for interacting with local police.
Call ahead when surveilling
One of the primary duties of a private investigator is to conduct surveillance on a target. Whether their job is to locate a missing person, investigate and find evidence of fraud, infidelity, or a crime, it often involves a stakeout.
While surveillance and stakeouts are totally normal in the life of a private investigator, the general public might not be too keen on spotting someone spying on their neighbors. They could be concerned that the investigator is actually staking out the home to rob it later, stalking, or some other nefarious activity.
One tip that private investigators offer is for investigators to call local law enforcement before they begin surveillance so that they are aware of who the investigator is and what they are doing. This should prevent the police from rolling up on the investigator while they are surveilling the subject because they are aware of the situation — and have been able to check you out as the investigator, confirming your identity and licensure (where applicable).
Private investigator Scott Olds of Armed Corp. Security advised that he routinely heeds this tip: “I always call the local agencies dispatch to let them know I'm in the area. That way if you are called in as suspicious, the responding officer will have a heads-up of who you are.”
Investigators may even get valuable information that can keep the investigator safe if they call ahead to the local police department, as Judith Laskowski of Laskowski Investigations explained: “I always check in with the local LE agency. When I had to serve some papers in Lake County (CA), the deputy gave me invaluable information about the area including warnings about what places to avoid. He asked me to check back when I was leaving the area, as there are many drug growers who are not friendly. I was grateful for that assistance.”
With that said, some investigators feel that calling ahead may end up getting the investigator burned and their identity spoiled. In other cases, calling ahead to explain may create a situation of divulging too much information that should have remained private, as an investigator from MIS Investigations offered: “In certain circumstances, we may call and let them know; however, in the areas I work it’s a courtesy call, and it is not required. Big city, I never call. Small city, might and might not call (depends). If approached while doing surveillance, I just tell them who I am and that I’m working. I never share more than that. For new PIs, be familiar with the laws as the police may not know. For example, in Michigan, client confidentiality for PIs is similar or the same as client-attorney privilege.”
Other investigators advised that while calling the police to advise them of the surveillance activity could be helpful, disclosing who is being investigated could be problematic. Investigator Janni Connelly advised “one concern is small towns and communities where everyone knows each other. Never give the name or exact address to the police. You don’t know who knows who. I personally do not alert the police.” Another private investigator also encouraged PIs not to disclose who they were investigating for this same reason.
Ultimately, whether or not an investigator calls police ahead of a stakeout is a personal choice; however, most will advise that especially in smaller cities and villages, contacting law enforcement prior to getting to work is beneficial.
Check whether a case is active
In some cases, family and friends will hire a private investigator when they feel that a crime has not been properly investigated by the police department. This occurs often in cases that have gone cold or remain unsolved after a significant period of time. While private investigators can provide an excellent service, often uncovering new information or chasing down unconventional leads, it is important that the private investigator determine whether the case is open and whether or not it is OK to proceed with the investigation.
Private investigator Dawn Hartwell of Hart 2 Hart Investigations explains, “We were recently contacted by a family looking for help solving a family member's murder. They stated the police aren't doing anything. Principal looked into the case and it was an active case. He respectfully emailed the detective, explained to him the conversation. Principal called the family back and let them know we can't get involved with an active murder investigation without authorities' approval.”
If the investigator finds that the case is open and ongoing, they may not be able to investigate the case unless they have been invited by the law enforcement agency. It is important for investigators to conduct due diligence to ensure they are not interfering with an open case, regardless of if they have been invited.
Finding evidence of a crime
If during the course of an investigation, a private investigator finds evidence of a crime, it is absolutely necessary that the investigator report the crime to the police. The investigator should also turn over any pertinent evidence obtained so as not to obstruct or interfere with the police investigation.
Soulat Arshad with Facts Investigations echoed this sentiment, advising other PIs to: “Gather video documentation of any crimes you witness and report them to your local police station immediately. Provide the evidence to them alongside a well-written statement or a report outlining the events that occurred. This can help the police solve crimes much faster and many times they will pay back by referring you to people who contact them but may not pass the thresholds of requiring police assistance. This has helped us get many domestic cases as well.”
Obviously, this is common sense, but even if hired to do a job, PIs must remember the job is not above the law and they must turn over all evidence.
Know your role
While there are some private investigators who are retired police officers, not all are. Even those who have retired from the police force are no longer active members, and as such, they do not have the powers that they once had as active officers. It is important for private investigators to acknowledge and respect the role that they have in an investigation and to not overstep their boundaries. Although investigators can assist in a police investigation, they are not above the law, nor are they police officers, and as such, they cannot impersonate one.
Additionally, in the event that a private investigator is approached or stopped by a police officer, they must heed the officer’s instructions. PIs should take care to advise officers that they are a licensed (where applicable) private investigator and let them know of any weapons they are carrying on their person. If a PI has a license, they should carry that information with them. Heeding the officer’s commands and acting peacefully and respectfully will result in a positive resolution. Typically, any issues can be swiftly addressed and the investigator will be able to go about their business as they were prior to being approached.
On the same team
In the end, private investigators and police agencies are both out to help people, solve crimes, and find justice. With similar goals, private investigators and police departments can work alongside one another for the greater good of the public without harm.