Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

A blog for PIs and writers/readers of the PI genre

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Answering Writers’ Questions About Surveillance and Law Enforcement & PIs Working Together

Posted by Writing PIs on July 6, 2009

To all those who celebrate the 4th, hope you had a great one!

It’s nearly July 6, next to the last day of Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes virtual open house. Everyone who comments July 1-July 7 is eligible for gifts, from books to T-shirts to a book-safe-storage (see picture of one in July 1 post).  Winners names to be picked July 8!

bullFor those keeping track, I’m now “outta the wild” (see last post).  Lost cell transmission for hours (and hours) which concerned Shaun to the point that he contacted the sheriff’s office of the region I was in.  Before I’d left “into the wild” on this rural surveillance, I’d had a lengthy meeting with several of the sheriffs for that region…however, when Shaun called their office, he got someone new and they said they’d never heard of me.  One of those small-town mis-communications, funny in retrospect, although it wasn’t very funny to Shaun at the time (hence Grumpy, grumpywhich is how Shaun got). For those writing sleuth tales, think of the ramifications of such a disconnect in your own stories.

Meanwhile, we thought it’d be interesting to post some more recent writers’ questions about PIs, from a client “riding along” on a surveillance to whether law enforcement and PIs ever work together. 

WRITER’S QUESTION:  I’ve heard it’s illegal for a client to ride along on a surveillance with a PI in some states. How would we know which states it is illegal in? I’m sure there will be other things that come up that vary from state to state?  Should we call a PI from our state to ask?

GUNS, GAMS, AND GUMSHOES ANSWER: Calling a PI in your state is a good resource. If you are in a state where PIs are licensed, contact the licensing authority for guidance on these  matters (typically this licensing authority will be within the state dept.  of regulatory agencies or the state police).

WRITER’S QUESTION: Do police hire PIs for help?

GUNS, GAMS, AND GUMSHOES ANSWER: More likely, the police would cooperate with PIs on a case (although this isn’t common, it’s certainly occurred. For example, a few years ago, the NY police cooperated with local PIs to break a theft ring in the garment district). A key reason the police wouldn’t hire (versus cooperate w/) PIs is that by their employing a private citizen (such as a PI), the police lose “the color of government authority” including the ability to obtain warrants, rely on rules for search/seizure (such as the fellow officer rule), and finally the law enforcement agency concerned does not want the liability of a contract employee who is more than likely carrying a weapon and who very well may not carry enough insurance.

Saying all this, it’s plausible that a government agency other than a law-enforcement agency might hire a PI to do an independent investigation. Here in Colorado, a county commissioner office hired a Denver PI to conduct an investigation of sexual harrassment and financial misappropriation by an elected county official, who could not have been independently investigated by the sheriff’s office for that county (because of the close ties between the 2
offices, both elected offices).

Post a comment/questions, and we’ll be happy to answer.  Next post will be July 8 with the “virtual open house” winners’ names, so stay tuned…


75 Responses to “Answering Writers’ Questions About Surveillance and Law Enforcement & PIs Working Together”

  1. Tamara B. said

    YAY open house party and love the name Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes! I became an email subscriber, thank-you!

  2. JOYE said

    Great information-enjoyed reading it.
    My question is-are the PI’s respected by others in law enforcement agencies?

    • writingpis said

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Re: your question (are PIs respected by others in law enforcement agencies), those PIs who are former/retired LE (law enforcement) tend to garner the respect of their former peers in law enforcement. Shaun and I aren’t former LE, but our personal experience has been that LE treats us with respect, although Shaun gets some healthy ribbing by LE when they learn he’s a former criminal defense attorney. We know some PIs (who don’t have LE backgrounds) who have grumbled about their more difficult relationships with LE, and of course it’s a popular running theme in fiction.

  3. Erica G said

    Ialways wondered if police worked with PIs or if they considered themselves PIs as well.

    • writingpis said

      Hi Erica,

      If I understood your question, police would be public investigators (versus private investigators). Thanks for writing, c.

  4. Laney4 said

    I’m impressed with your attention to detail! Great web site! “I’ll be baaaaack!”

    • writingpis said

      Hey, thanks for coming baaaack! One reason Shaun and I get along so well, both personally and in business, is he’s the “big picture” sort and I’m the detailed sort 🙂

  5. Jo Ann said

    I think so, just don’t let it be known to the public! What a great web site this is!! Lots of info.

  6. Susan said

    I have a couple of PI questions: Is there a difference in the kind of cases most often presented to PIs in urban and rural areas? (I have to admit a couple of the blog pictures started me wondering on the rural aspect…any cattle rustlin’ PI work?) What is the number 1 requested PI service from individuals versus corporations?


    • writingpis said

      From Shaun: A great deal of private investigation work is performed using the tools that are common to all private investigators, such as surveillance, witness interviews, locating missing people, and answering questions around infidelity–and it matters little if the setting is in Brooklyn or rural New Hampshire. We still watch people and attempt to document their misconduct.

      From Colleen: Regarding cattle rustlin’, I know a PI in another state who worked a case to find a horse that had been stolen. This same PI worked a case for several years, finding two missing people in middle of a wilderness area (she was eventually successful).

      What is the number 1 requested service from individuals vs. corporations? From individuals, we’d say probably domestic relations (infidelity investigations). For corporations, insurance companies want surveillance on claimants. Another category of corporations mostly request background checks (pre-employment, etc.).

  7. Diane Pollock said

    Some very insightful information!

  8. Rhonda Struthers said

    As an avid mystery reader. I am looking forward to the articles on this blog.

  9. Annetta said

    Do PI’s usually get the same run around from police about info that a normal citizen does?

    • writingpis said

      From Shaun: We are no different, unless we have information the police need–then it is a tidy little exchange.

  10. Kimberley C said

    Are there any cases that a P.I. will not take?

    • writingpis said

      From Shaun (laughing): Depends on when the mortgage payment’s due. Seriously, there is one prominent Denver PI who simply will not work for a criminal defendant. Also, many PIs will not assist in the defense of someone accused of abusing a child.

  11. Joanne said

    Just became a subscriber and can’t wait to continue reading. Thanks for the opportunity to win!

  12. patsy hagen said

    I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the police hired a P.I. for help from time to time. When investigating a crime, wouldn’t they use any and all means they could find to solve it?

    • writingpis said

      From Shaun: We’ve answered this generally by saying that the police will sometimes cooperate with PIs to help solve crimes. Hiring, however, presents a different set of issues (which we noted in today’s blog).

  13. Gram said

    Interesting about the elected county official being investigated, but lately I am not surprised.

  14. Dina said

    I just rec’d an email to visit, sorry to have missed so much.

  15. Christy said

    What did we EVER do without cell phones? We could go hours without anyone ever knowing where we were. (sometimes I miss those days) 😉

  16. Sara said

    I was really pleased to get information about your newsletter!!! Thanks!!!

  17. Kelli Jo Calvert said

    It rained all day on the 4th – so it wasn’t the best Independece Day ever! What a great blog!

  18. Marlene Breakfield said

    I found this very informative.

  19. Anne said

    I’ve often thought that having a professional law enforcement officer sharing information with anyone outside law enforcement was pushing reality, especially amateur sleuths.

    • writingpis said

      Response from Shaun: If there’s something in it for the law enforcement officer, he/she might share. The law enforcement mission might be to serve and protect, but the very real currency of the trade is information and advice. Any investigator, law enforcement or private, must look for assistance from people with factual and technical knowledge to help in resolving that investigator’s questions.

  20. RobynL said

    I subscribed and am excited for this new blog. Some very interesting info from the questions asked.

  21. Brandy W said

    Cool an open house. I can’t wait to explore the site more. Just had to comment before I became a bit more engrossed in playing around here.

  22. Patricia Barraclough said

    What an interesting post. Hadn’t really thought much about government agencies hiring PI’s, but as in the example you gave, it makes sense. Either they hire someone outside the local government loop or as state or federal officials to handle the investigation. This seems like an interesting site. Look forward to following it. Good luck.

  23. Kammie said

    Love the layout of the blog and the name. That’s original and cute! I have subscribed via bloglines so I won’t miss the posts.

  24. Denise D said

    I’m so elated I was invited to your open house! I’m going to spread the word to all my writer friends on how much fun it is here!

  25. GladysMP said

    Is PI work usually interesting or does it get to be so routine that it is boring for the most part? Of course, many jobs become boring and routine.

    • writingpis said

      Some parts feel boring, but most of it remains very interesting. The only job I’ve ever had where I never know what to expect, day to day.

  26. Juanita Stender said

    Thanks for all the great information. I am learning so much and becoming educated in the world of PI’s. I like most people believed the sterotypes portrayed in Movies or on TV.

  27. Sue Brandes said

    Thanks for the open house party. Very interesting article. Also signed up for email.

  28. Pamela S said

    I just subscribed. Sounds like fun!

    My question is—–What is the wildest thing you’ve ever done as a PI? Can you tell us a funny story of something you did or saw?


    • writingpis said

      What is the wildest? Early on, I discovered a well-educated woman had committed a crime and had convinced law enforcement it had been done by her “twin sister” (who I discovered was really her). There’s a lot to the crime, of course (too much to go into here), but she was smart enough (and had certain documentation created for her “twin”) where all kinds of people believed this twin had done this evil deed and then skipped the country. Can’t tell you how surprised the attorney (who had hired me to investigate this far-away twin) was to find out the woman had been living 30 minutes away from his office all this time (not in Bermuda or England as everyone believed).

  29. Quilt Lady said

    Oh wow this is some interesting stuff you have posted here.I enjoyed reading all of the PI questions. I think this is going to be a great blog!

  30. Chelle said

    Thanks for all your great information for writers. Can’t wait until your book comes out. Your classes are wonderful, but having everything in one book as a reference will be even better.

  31. Little Lamb Lost said

    I just found your blog after reading your newsletter, Colleen. It looks like grand fun. I have been fascinated with PI’s since Remington Steele and Magnun days. Will read the questions and replies with great interest.

  32. Jamie W. said

    What a cool blog! Just added you to my Google RSS Feed. I’m looking forward to more interesting topics!

  33. catslady said

    Great blog. Can PI’s do things that police can’t – not saying illegal necessarily lol but do they have more options?

    • writingpis said

      The first thing that comes to mind: PIs often have the luxury of more time to investigate a case than police who are overworked and sometimes understaffed. Also, I’ll add an answer we once gave when someone asked the difference between FBI and PIs:

      FBI agents are government employees as well as law enforcement agents and they must abide by each rule protecting constitutional rights and they must follow government protocol. FBI agents are publicly funded and have tremendous technical and forensic support. Private investigators do not have to protect constitutional rights and they can choose to process evidence or fill out expense reports as they choose, unlike FBI agents. Of course, PIs cannot carry weapons or conduct wire taps in the same way FBI agents do. On the other hand, PIs are bound by financial concerns and technology comes at a great price. In essence, while government agents have to follow certain rules, they have tremendous resources.

  34. Krystal S said

    I’m here for the open house party!!! Count me in. Interesting article above.

  35. Michele L. said

    Cool blogsite! I wished I would have heard about you sooner! 🙂 This is really awesome info! I love a good mystery and have always wondered how the authors come up with their ideas and know so much detail about the PI’s, police, FBI, the Navy SEALS, etc. How do you handle the amount of info you give to authors to use in their stories? I would think a lot of your methods, special tricks, etc. would be top secret information.

    Do you ever get questions that you will not answer from the police or another source?

    One last question, have you ever had a case that turned really violent and had to call in the cops?

    • writingpis said

      Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for writing! We did our best to answer your questions below:

      Question: How do you handle the amount of info you give to authors to use in their stories? I would think a lot of your methods, special tricks, etc. would be top secret information.

      Answer: We answer questions that help writers make situations/techniques plausible in their stories, but we’re careful to protect proprietary methods and tools.

      Question: Do you ever get questions that you will not answer from the police or another source?

      Answer: When we work for attorneys who are on the other side of a case (where the police are the investigative agents) we routinely decline to be interviewed or provide information because to do so would violate our client’s individual rights.

      Question: One last question, have you ever had a case that turned really violent and had to call in the cops?

      Answer: No. We thought about our past cases, and we don’t even recall ever having to call 911.

  36. Jane Squires said

    My husband is a deputy/jailer and I don’t know of anytime they have hired a PI to help them.
    I live in a rural area where cell service can get bad because of hills and valleys.
    My fourth was horrible as my husband started a grease fire in kitchen and I am killing my back (I just had two back procedures) to clean up his mess.
    I wonder if we’ll ever quit smelling soot.
    God Bless
    Hope I win something

  37. Jane Squires said

    I give up. I tried for 8 times to subscribe to this and it won’t put the words up and then when you hit submit it won’t load them and I’ve had enough.

    • writingpis said

      Jane, you’re the only one we’re aware of having problems subscribing, so we’ll write you privately and see if we can help you get set up. If we recall correctly, wasn’t it your husband who set the grease fire on July the 4th? We want to send you a book or a T-shirt (your choice) to cheer you up, so when we write you we’ll ask which one you’d like. Best wishes, Colleen/Shaun

  38. Sunnymay said

    Do PI’s prefer to fly “under the radar” or do they want the public to know they’re PI’s? Who stirs up more trouble, law enforcement or PI’s? Who are people more willing to give info to? As you can see, I have a lot of questions which is the usual way I operate and sift quality observations and offerings. The sharing of information is key to playing on hunches and piecing together a scenerio that’s plausible.

    • writingpis said

      Hi Sunnymay,

      Your question: Do PI’s prefer to fly “under the radar” or do they want the public to know they’re PI’s?

      Answer: Fly under the radar, although there are some PIs who are very public with their identities and profession. Usually these are PIs who don’t do undercover work.

      Your question: Who stirs up more trouble, law enforcement or PI’s?

      Answer: Law enforcement 🙂 Of course, you’d hear just the opposite from law enforcement. Seriously, we’re all in the business of getting to the truth, and ruffling feathers is part of the journey.

      Your question: Who are people more willing to give info to?

      Answer: Shaun thinks people are more willing to talk to a woman, whether she’s law enforcement or a PI. Colleen thinks people are more willing (or afraid not to) talk to law enforcement, be it a man or woman.

  39. kaisquared said

    Thank you for the invite to your party and this blog, very interesting stuff.

  40. Donna P said

    Love your blog & all the PI info. I enjoyed visiting. Keep up the good work.

  41. Crystal B. said

    What a great site. I enjoyed your post. A lot of interesting information. 🙂

  42. Joan Woods said

    Love the name of your blog. I would like to know if PI’s accept any type of case or are they particular about what they do and who they work for?

    • writingpis said

      Hi Joan,

      Because your question was similar to another’s, I’ll post that response below. Thanks for writing.

      From Shaun (laughing): Depends on when the mortgage payment’s due. Seriously, there is one prominent Denver PI who simply will not work for a criminal defendant. Also, many PIs will not assist in the defense of someone accused of abusing a child.

  43. Sylvia Bortman said

    I just subscribed! I love your great blog! Lots of great information and very interesting! Thank you! Sylvia

  44. Pat Marinelli said

    All I can say is, “Wow!” I was here once before and I will surely be back.

  45. pearl said

    An interesting and unique blog with great posts which are fascianting. All the best in your new venture.

  46. Maureen said

    I’m wondering about the business aspect of the PI business. Are there any large firms or is it generally individuals or partners?

    • writingpis said

      Yes, there are larg(er) firms, and then they are many individuals/partners. It seems the bulk of PI agencies are the latter.

  47. Leah said

    What a great idea for a website! I love that you are answering all the questions that I (as a mystery fan) often have about PIs and their involvement with law enforcement. Can’t wait to read more!

  48. Dawnlizabeth said

    I have always at the relationships of ‘private dicks’ and ‘flat feet’ traditonally they have an uncomfortable relationship.

  49. Carol L. said

    This is my first visit but can promise it won’t be my last. 🙂
    I love all you and Shaun’s posts. Very informative. Thank you.
    Carol L.

  50. Pat Cochran said

    I have an old friend who became a police officer after high
    school graduation, then at some later point became a PI. I’ve
    never asked him if that is a common occurrence, going from a
    public to a private situation.

    Pat Cochran

    • writingpis said

      We’ve met many PIs who were former law enforcement, so yes, it seems to be a fairly common occurrence.

  51. Linda F said

    Thanks so much for the inside information. I always wondered how those relationships worked.

  52. Bev said

    Since this is my first visit I am not sure if this question has been asked or answered before. What is the basic “gear” for a P.I.?

    Now off to look around.


    • writingpis said

      PIs have different specializations, but below is a basic list of gear that a typical PI might have:

      Computer with Internet access
      Good quality printer
      Fax machine
      Cell telephone
      Video recorder (we only use digital, but some PIs still use tape)
      Voice recorder

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