A private detective, also known as a Private Investigator (PI), is a person who is not a member of a police force but is licensed to do detective work (an investigation of suspected wrongdoing or searching for missing persons). Private detectives have been around for 150 years and they usually work for private citizens or businesses rather than the government, like police detectives or crime scene investigators do. Private detectives also have the goal of collecting factual evidence that could help solve a crime, unlike a police detective whose goal is to arrest and prosecute criminals. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, about a quarter of private detectives today are self employed. A quarter of the remaining private detectives work for detective agencies and security services and the rest work for credit collection services, financial institutions or other businesses. No matter where you work, as a private detective your job is the same. A private detective’s job is to conduct thorough investigations.
Before one starts a job as a private detective, they need to be educated and trained. Some have a background in the military or as a police officer, while others have a background in surveillance or as a crime scene investigator. While this background is helpful, it does not replace the proper training needed to become a private detective. Generally, a person learns to be a private detective through an apprenticeship with an experienced detective or through formal instruction. This training is the same whether in the field or in a class room. Private detectives in training need to learn about:
• Investigative and surveillance techniques
• Laws and ethics pertaining to investigative practice
• Questioning witnesses
• Evidence-handling procedures
In some areas, the training is only the first step in becoming a private detective. After training, they need to obtain a license. Licensing varies from place to place. For example, countries such as England have no official licensing process. Each state in the US has its own licensing procedure (or lack thereof). The requirements for each state include some combination of education and training as well as a clean criminal record. There are some places that will only accept an education from an accredited school that meets precise criteria in their curriculum. In those states, the school must submit their curriculum for approval and only those from an accredited school become licensed investigators.
Duties of a Private Detective
A private detective’s case load often includes background investigations, surveillance and skip traces, and searches for missing people. In some cases private detectives can serve legal documents that notify a person of their involvement in legal proceedings, such as court subpoenas. Serving such legal documents is required to adhere to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee the right to due process. Due process is the principle that all persons are treated equally in the eyes of the law. It stems from the US Constitution’s Fifth Amendment which guarantees that “no person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”.
What a private detective investigates is based on what their specialty areas are. But no matter what a detective investigates, they must all collect facts and organize them. Detectives gather facts a few different ways. The first is by surveillance. This includes following a person without being noticed and without losing them. While some agencies have surveillance vans, many detectives work out of their car. The surveillance process can be long and with a possibility of no breaks. Another way to gather information is to interview witnesses and suspects. This proves to be difficult though because the person being interviewed has no legal obligation to talk and if the interviewee is reluctant to talk, coercing information from them can pose legal and ethical problems. The final way that private detectives gather information is through accessing public records. Private detectives must carefully look at tax records, birth and death records, court records, and DMV records. All of these methods provide information that the investigator then needs to analyze and report the findings back to the client.