Can a Private Investigator Obtain a Police File?
Posted by Writing PIs on March 10, 2014
A writer asks how a P.I. might obtain a law enforcement report.
Writer’s Question: In the book I’m trying to write, the sister of a woman is missing. The police have finished their investigation and decided that the woman ran off. (Maybe not closed the investigation, not sure how that works in real life.) Her sister doesn’t believe that, so goes to my P.I. for help. My questions are: Can a P.I. get the file on the woman from the authorities? Is there sharing and corporation or is there conflict between them?
Answer: It’s very difficult for anyone from the private sector to obtain an open investigation file, although any private citizen can obtain access to a closed file.
But back to an open investigation file: Law enforcement officials might share verbal conclusions, but they would not share the entire body of the file. Often, there is conflict (or at least a lack of cooperation) between the private and public sectors. Things get even more complicated when you factor in the federal agencies because they consider most local law enforcement to be inferior agencies. For example, federal agencies frequently defer missing person investigations to local authorities absent special factors, which include kidnap with inter-state transport, kidnap with ransom, child kidnap, international kidnap, and kidnapping related to international or domestic terrorism.
Saying that, there are a number of famous cases where private investigators have solved missing person and homicide cases. Not so long ago, several retired El Paso County Colorado law enforcement agents formed a private investigations agency that uncovered a serial murderer responsible for anywhere between 7-30 deaths (many of which had been unsolved for more than 10 years). This is an example of dedicated law enforcement work by those in the private sector, although we also surmise they must have had a tremendous amount of cooperation from their former agencies.
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