A few weeks ago on TechAndScience.com, I came across an article titled What’s the Difference Between a PI and a Cop? (As an aside, I still haven’t figured out what the topic has to do with either technology or science.)

As the title indicates, the primary focus of the piece is to describe the differences between a private investigator (PI) and a police officer. To be honest, I am not sure that anyone ever confuses the two. But perhaps people do confuse the two more than I imagine. The article also spends some time discussing the “benefits” of having had a career in law enforcement before becoming a private investigator.

Fair enough. It’s hard to refute that previous law enforcement experience can be helpful to a PI, although it’s not a requirement in any jurisdiction, and in some cases it can be a hindrance (more on that later).

Anyone who is curious can easily determine, upon closer inspection, that the firm behind the website that published the article has posted a video that suggests that because they are former FBI agents, they have the “education, expertise and experience” to take “public database information” and develop it into an “in-depth background investigation” more effectively than other private investigators. Really?

This assertion really struck a negative chord with me, and I am certain that I am not the only one who feels this way.

I get it. You’ve got to sell what you have, but the fact that you carried a badge and a gun does not make you more effective or qualified—or necessarily afford you superior training and skills—to handle matters in the private sector. Period.

In my short career, I’ve seen my share of both good and bad investigators, with and without law enforcement experience. You can ask any other private investigator and they will tell you the same thing.

The article details several reasons why it is beneficial to have a career in law enforcement before becoming a PI, including the following:

“Friends and connections in the local law enforcement agency”

There is vast illegal/unethical line here. Just ask Anthony Pellicano, a former private investigator, who is sitting in jail, in part, for having “rogue police officers” search databases for personal information. Or former police officer Chris Butler, who hired attractive women to lure husbands into cheating and then used his buddies in law enforcement to set up the husbands with drinking and driving charges (he’s in jail too).

Frankly, I can’t think of one investigative situation I have experienced in my career in which a connection to a local law enforcement agency would have helped me out. I am not diminishing the importance of what local or federal law enforcement personnel do, or the information they have access to, but in the cases I have been involved with, that “connection” has never been necessary.

The fact of the matter is that even if local law enforcement officers did give me non-public information, it would be inadmissible in any court proceeding, and even a whiff of any unscrupulous behavior on a PI’s part might undermine a client’s best interest.

“Knowledge of good detective techniques and investigation procedures”

It’s true that years of practice as a police officer improve techniques used in interviewing, investigation and information gathering. But the game is completely different in the private sector.

Private investigators need to get information in a roundabout way—not by using the authority of an office (or uniform). PIs typically do not have access to the National Crime Information Center’s national criminal record database or the FBI database.

Without a badge, access to classified, nonpublic information or a warrant, you quickly learn that LexisNexis, a library card and a roll of quarters for the copy machine at the local court are as important as anything else.

“Access to resources normal individuals may not know about”

This one is my favorite. By “normal individuals,” are they referring to private investigators with no law enforcement experience? And exactly what “resources” are they referring to?

I know that some investigators love touting their “secret sources,” but if it’s something that “normal individuals” don’t know about, it’s either 1) illegal or 2) a figment of someone’s imagination.

Your Experience Counts

Sure, if you are working in the field of bail enforcement or security (e.g., as a guard) or on any type of case involving child abduction, murder, violent crime, or countless other cases, your law enforcement experience will absolutely help you. But how often do former law enforcement officers conduct background investigations through public sources, due diligence investigations, work for the defense in a white collar criminal defense case, conduct asset investigations, or spend hours on IRB  or TLO trying to find someone?

This Business Is About Information, Not Credentials

This business is about obtaining information, legally and ethically, to help your clients. Period.

Having a badge, unfortunately, does not change that equation. (There are, however, some investigators who like to flash their old badges, but leaving anyone with the mistaken impression that you are law enforcement is illegal.)

If you don’t believe me, just run down the roster of some of the best and biggest investigative firms in the world, such as Kroll, K2 Intelligence, Control Risks, Mintz Group and Guidepost Solutions, and you will find that they were founded and are run by attorneys, federal prosecutors, district attorneys, journalists and investigators who have spent their whole lives in the private sector—without any law enforcement experience.

I didn’t write this to pick a fight.

And this is not a chest-thumping exercise either.

In my opinion, there is no correlation between law enforcement experience and success as a private investigator, despite what many people assert.

So I have laid it out there…and now it’s time to hear what you think.

Note: This may shock you, but I have no law enforcement experience.

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23 replies
  1. Dan Corum
    Dan Corum says:

    First of all I am not former law enforcement. I have been a self employed private investigator for over 15 yeras and was an insurance investigator for over 30 years before. For over 17 years as an insurance investigator my job was to train and re-train investigators, so I feel I have some knowledge on what makes a good private investigator. The number one aspect I think is personality. The investigator has to be able to know when to be firm and when to be the world’s nicest guy depending on who you’re desaling with. Experience is wonderful but all that we do can be learned. The two best investigators that I personnally know have this ability. One is a former LEO and the other is not. Some LEO experience is probably better than others, as I would think that a patrol officer would probably have less experience than a detective or FBI agent, however friends that are or have been PI’s that had been patrol officers turned out to be excellent investigators. A huge part of becoming a good PI is the training you get after entering the field, through contact with other PI’s, seminars, attorneys etc.

    The problem encountered by former LEO’s when they become private investigators is that people no longer feel that they have to talk to you or want to provide info because you’re the law. New Pi’s sometimes find it a challenge to extract information without the aid of a badge but soon learn it is just a matter of treating people with respect.

    So my take is it doesn’t matter whether you’re former LE or not either one can make an excellent investigator.

  2. Jeremy Pennington
    Jeremy Pennington says:

    For starters, I would like to thank you Brian. I have always enjoyed reading your articles.

    I am a Private Investigator with a Law Enforcement background. I have noticed that many non-prior Law Enforcement private investigators get on this bandwagon of attacking the credential of being prior Law Enforcement. I always get disgusted when I read articles like this or hear other private investigators involved in this form of dialogue. In the same token, I find it distasteful when a Private Investigator uses his/her prior Law Enforcement background as their main advertising sound bite. Its right up there with “We provide you with Intelligence.” Really? But that’s another issue in itself. With this in mind, I would like to add the following.

    For those who are not prior Law Enforcement. What did you do before your Private Investigator career? Maybe you were an investigative journalist. Insurance Adjuster? Or, maybe you worked at Burger King! The reality is somewhere along the line you were something else before a Private Investigator. Your background may add to your “now” work as a Private Investigator, depending on your current niche. Or, your prior work may add nothing to your current work.

    Now does prior law enforcement experience predetermine you will have a successful career as a Privet Investigator? Maybe, maybe not. I think it depends on a lot of factors. Many of these factors have nothing to do with being prior Law Enforcement. For one, we have the really big factor. The one that everyone has an issue with. How to run a business! Plus, all of the other issues of marketing, sales, insurance, invoicing, and getting work.

    I deal with Private Investigators from both sides weekly. What I have noticed is the private investigators with no Law Enforcement experience seem to have a less developed tradecraft. The reality is that Private Investigators with no Law Enforcement experience really don’t understand the job of a Cop. For example, the issue of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Really? Everyone thinks there is some kind of secret information held in this exchange network. As Cop, I used it for two tasks. To run vehicle registrations and to look for prior arrest that maybe available if the subject was finger printed at the time. Not a big resource. Sorry, TLO beats it hands down! But, it’s the only thing you hear in the private investigator industry: What database? Where is that record kept? So, all those non-prior Law Enforcement private investigators think about is database and getting records. As a Private Investigator with a Law Enforcement background, the first thing I think about is “who” can I use as a source? This is just one difference in having a Law Enforcement background and not having one.

    Now is it better to have or not to have a background in Law Enforcement? I think it depends. If you chase cheating spouses for a living, I don’t think it matters. If you are conducting investigations well beyond some database or paper trail, I think it really does matter!

    Does anyone know what Allan Pinkerton did before building one of the most famous private investigation firms? Look here: http://www.pinkerton.com/history

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      I appreciate the response and your thoughts on the matter.

      Although I don’t totally agree with you, I understand the point. In my opinion, your experience as a private investigator matters infinitely more important than your previous experience.

      Pinkerton was founded 150 years ago. Pinkerton was effectively doing work that was an extension of the police and federal government, but that is just not the case now. Times have changed. The biggest firm out there right now, Kroll, was founded by a former district attorney.

      • Jeremy Pennington
        Jeremy Pennington says:

        Thank you for your reply.

        We may disagree in general, but I do agree your experience as a “private investigator” does outweigh your prior experience, no matter the experience, in the case of working as a “Private Investigator.”

        Your niche in the industry is very much different then mine. So, our views will differ. I don’t touch financial issues.

        In closing, we could have a very lively debate on this issue. Maybe one day, we can finish in private as two peers having an intelligent conversation.

        Thank you for the delightful dialogue.

        Jeremy Pennington, M.A.

  3. Walt Aloysius
    Walt Aloysius says:

    I agree you that it does not correlate to better skills; apparently states near you disagree because in NJ, PA and Delaware you MUST be a former (at least 5 years experience) LEO to open a PI firm.

  4. Alfie Blevins
    Alfie Blevins says:

    Nice article. Mine was more of a question. I am currently a police officer wanting to get into the private sector. I am 26 years old and thinking about starting up a private investigator office in the next 6 months. I plan to remain a police officer here in ohio. What concerns me is the fact that I AM a police officer. I fully understand that I cannot use any resourses as a police officer in the provate sector. What scares me is what if i happen to look up a name pr run a tag of someone that I end up Investigating a week later? This could be very scary. I could be accused of looking that up for my private business and potentially get into a lot of trouble. What do you suggest I should do to prevent this? D:

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      It’s an very valid concern. In many states, you can not be an active police officer and carry a private investigators license. The chances of it happening are slim, but you have to think of the obvious conflicts here. Any situation in which information you obtain in the private sector could, in any way be construed that it was obtained through other means through your duties as a police officer, may not only do damage to your reputation, but your client as well. I would really think hard about doing both.

      That is one persons opinion though.

  5. Steve King
    Steve King says:

    As one of those retired officers with 25 years experience no offense is taken in what you wrote. I suppose if you look in general at police officers what you say applies. But i do believe that those with specialized jobs, like I had in intel, do bring an excellent skill set to PI work. Good intel isn’t gathered from just the normal resources, but there were times going off the grid helped. And i dare say my research skills utilizing a computer are well above average of most officers. And as for connections; I prefer the term friends and I would never put my friends in a position could damage or end their careers. I believe in being professional and ethical and operating with integrity.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Thanks for the comment Steve. There is no doubt that certain police duties bring an excellent skill set to private detective work. My main point was that one doesn’t necessarily guarantee the other.

  6. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Good comments Brian. I was on Phoenix PD for only 5 years many years ago, but it’s funny when people ask me if I still have any “connections” on the force. Why? Even if I did, what can they do for me or a case I have??

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      My thoughts exactly Jeff. There are obviously some cases that it could be helpful, but for the work that I do, those connections have never been necessary.

  7. John Folino
    John Folino says:

    I agree with your conclusion that prior law enforcement experience doesn’t equate to a being a better PI. I have prior law enforcement experience and have learned there is a steep learning curve in becoming a PI with or without law enforcement experience. Prior experience doesn’t insure the individual ethics that are of the utmost importance in being successful in the PI business. That falls on the individual. Good article.

  8. Michael Horner
    Michael Horner says:

    I’ve worked with and have trained former LEO’s in P.I. work. It seems to be difficult for some to realize they no longer have the power of their former career. Although that former career may help a little, it seemed to hinder more than help. It was a struggle to get them out of the LE mindset. It some cases it was worse than having a complete novice.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Thanks for your comment Michael. Seems to be a common theme. It’s harder to un-train certain bad habits, than to train new ones.

  9. Jarris Fuller
    Jarris Fuller says:

    I’m ex-police (25 years ago) and in Australia, but I imagine the transition from law enforcement to PI work would be roughly the same regardless of the country.

    I specialise in surveillance work and have found the best people to do that type of work generally (not always) do NOT have a police background.

    Law enforcement surveillance methods and procedures are very, very different to the private sector and it can be a tough transition going from working in a team of 7+ to being the only person doing all the following, videoing, etc.

    PI surveillance work can be a extremely demanding and most ex-police I’ve tried out in the past don’t make it past the first few days – it’s just too hard compared to what they were used to.

    Nice website, Brian. Lots of good info too.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Thanks for your comment Jarris. Your experience has been echoed by many other investigators as well. It’s a tough transition, no matter which way you slice it – much more so than people think.

  10. Scott Ross
    Scott Ross says:

    I agree with Brian. I have accomplished all that I have with no law enforcement background. In February 2013, I will have been doing this job for 34 years. In the criminal defense arena, it is also my experience that often times being former law enforcement hinders them. They have spent years with the mentality that if you were arrested, you are guilty.

    In my opinion, there is only one ingredient or personalily trait necessary to be a PI, common sense. Everything else you can learn. In my favorite words of Tyshaun Jackson, a former client and convicted murderer, “There is nothing common about common sense.”

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