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Private vs. Public Investigators: What’s the Difference?

Posted by Writing PIs on June 2, 2015

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Updated February 10, 2016

In June, we celebrate our seven-year anniversary here at Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes. I just checked which articles have been readers’ favorites over the years, and “Private vs. Public Investigators: What’s the Difference?” ranks #1.

It might seem to be a simple question, but there are all kinds of government (meaning public) investigators — from police detectives to coroner office investigators to FBI agents — as well as different kinds of private investigators, including newspaper reporters, insurance investigators, skip tracers, and more.

Also, there are “amateur sleuths” in some mystery stories, who are not private investigators as amateur sleuths do not accept money for their investigative services. To read more about private investigators in fiction, check out the Private Eye Writers of America website.

So now let’s answer the question:

Private vs. Public Investigators: What’s the Difference?surveillance female hanging out of car with camera

What’s with the word “private”? Without being glib, it’s the opposite of “public.” Police officers and government agents are public investigators. There are differences between private investigators and public investigators, such as:

  • Private investigators do not have ready access to privileged government information about most of us nor do they always share investigative leads and similar intelligence with other investigators.
  • A private investigator’s job status alone does not imbue her with an ability to carry firearms.
  • Private investigators pay for their own equipment, some of which can get quite expensive (such as radios, computers, still/video cameras, automobiles, etc.).  Public-sector investigators (police, etc.) do not pay from their pockets for such equipment.

Why Pursue a Career as a PI?

So why become a private investigator when public ones get better access to information and free tools? For starters, it’s always appealing to be your own boss. If you’re writing a private detective story, keep in mind that as in any well-run business, your sleuth character will need to be good with details, legalities, watching the bottom line (or hire someone to help him/her with it).

Also, a private investigator’s work is challenging, exciting, sometimes downright fun.  Robert Scott, PI and author, sums up the private investigator’s life in The Investigator’s Little Black Book 3 with these words: “It’s a front row seat to the Greatest Show on Earth.” That’s because a PI has a front row seat on life and its constantly revolving characters and life situations — many just as entertaining, if not more so, than you’ll ever see in movies or on TV.  What a rich vantage point for your own fictional PI.

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins and/or Shaun Kaufman) requires specific, written authority.

How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths by Colleen Collins & Shaun Kaufman 

Click on book cover to go to Amazon page

5 Responses to “Private vs. Public Investigators: What’s the Difference?”

  1. Shaun said

    One constant for both public and private investigators is that in spite of economic changes, people have an unwavering desire to have information. As a result, both public and private investigators continue to be employed at a greater rate than most job categories.

  2. Hope Clark said

    While public and private investigators operate in different worlds, they’ve been known to share info as well or better than public investigators from two different agencies.

  3. Shaun said

    I couldn’t agree more with Hope’s comment. In my past experience as a trial attorney, there were instances were inter-agency competition inhibited investigative progress on cases. Conversely, when a public agency works with a private investigator, there is no competition, and there is typically a mutual exchange of information because the private investigator poses no long-term threat to funding or status for the public agency.

  4. Sam Oestrich said

    I hadn’t given much thought to what private meant for PIs compared to public or government. Informative blog.

  5. Rick Levine said

    Hey Collen and Shaun, dropped by to check out the blog. Nice job. You’re my favorite private investigators.

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