Surveillance Success (And Failure)

Of all the jobs that I do as an investigator suveillance is far and away the toughest. I hate to lose, which I do from time to time, and lately I have been thinking about the factors in surveillance that lead to triumph or despair.

Reality is that everyone seems to be on a budget. Clients rarely want to spring for using two licensed investigators but that’s what needs to be done to improve the odds of a successful outcome. When I do the work alone, there are just too many variables that can wreck my day, some of them of my own doing.

I define success on a surveillance by not losing my subject. (Whether he does anything “noteworthy” while I peep is out of my control.) I would say that when I do surveillance solo I win about 70-percent of the time. I would tell any client that if you can’t devote the time, money and resources to a surveillance than just don’t do it.

Planning is the first step. I need to know when to start, to scout out the area before hand, where the person will be, the license plate, where the car might be parked, the license plate, any telltale bumper stickers, the driving habits of the person, the person’s paranoia level, etc, etc.

I have had some great success solo. One weekend when I was breaking into the business I followed a married lawyer and his mistress all weekend long in San Francisco. I didn’t even have video then but snapped some great shots with a mirror lens. A couple years ago in a Honda Civic, I managed to follow a venture capital dude in his Porsche from Palo Alto to San Francisco at speeds up to 100 mph. I did it with nerve and a sense of desperate determination.

The failures hurt. I once managed to follow a couple on rush hour Friday from Martinez into San Francisco. I would lose sight of them but then somehow always manage to find them again. But, as a result of being glued to them, they made me along the Embarcadero. I have lost people due to getting cut off or hung out at a light. It happens. Some targets are just more observant or nervous.

The best hedge for success is getting on a subject once they leave their neighborhood. I can look out my door right now and pick out every car up and down the block that belongs. Start slow and learn a person’s habits and schedule. When I blow it usually is because I was too aggressive or trying too hard, taking out the video camera too soon.

I have had some great results when the client opted to pay for an extra investigator. That second car gives you the option of trading off tail vehicles to avoid detection. IN congested areas, two PIs is a must. What do you do if you follow someone solo and your target gets the only parking space and is then away on foot? You’re screwed. With two PIs on a case you can just cover so much ground and recover and react that much faster. It’s not foolproof but when you consider that police use task forces on mobile surveillance, two sleuths are better than one.

I ended up getting chased in a car one time by a subject after an assistant and I had followed him for a couple weeks. He came after me but by then we already had our “money shots” of him and his girlfriend down at the Emeryville marina tucking their pants in simulateously after a little romp. I once followed a deputy in training but never could have done it without the help of PI Ed Crame.

Using the second investigator costs about 50-percent more but if you want to improve the odds from 70-percent to about 95-percent it’s worth it. I am not a great surveillance person but have had some good moments. (And I will start passing the costs along to clients if I get a moving violation on a case.)

Christmas Sleuthing: A Joyous Juxtaposition

Private dick work is usually fun but Christmas gloriously highlights the split between the work itself and the ideals of the holiday. I have always liked the opening scene in L.A. Confidential where the Russell Crowe character yanks down the Christmas lights from on top of the house then handcuffs the wife beater to the railing. Then, there is the glorious brawl at the police station with all the boozed up cops. My line of work is not quite like LA Confidential but it has its holiday moments.
What better way to say good will towards mankind than spying on a woman’s boyfriend in Stockton or tracking down a witness in a criminal case in a dingy apartment in Livermore?
Last year it was Christmas eve surveillance in Stockton, an armpit of a city south of Sacramento and east of Oakland. I followed the guy as he was supposed to be with his elderly parents but was really cavorting elsewhere.
Even on the holiest of all eves, Stockton couldn’t keep from being, well, Stockton. Trunk speakers blasted out the ghetto thump-thump all over the mall parking lots as reprobates scurried to do last minute shopping. I got the video I needed and knocked off just before midnight. As domestic cases go this one was not all that….
This Christmas eve I located a witness in Livermore who is tangled in an Oakland murder case. The guy came to his door in boxers, unshaven and smelling of the previous night’s booze. He is not a big witness but can attest to the Oakland police’s overzealous habits.
It was then back to Oakland trying to get another witness in the murder case to talk. He was on his cell phone in front of his house, with his pitbulls dancing by his side. He couldn’t talk to me then but I told him I would be in touch.
Finally, I could have capped my Christmas eve by serving a lawsuit on a wheelchair-bound woman but even I have Karma concerns. I’ll get her the day after Christmas.