How to Choose the Right Physical Surveillance Provider for Optimal Threat Management   

According to workplace threat management protocols by the American National Standard Institute (ANSI), Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention manual (ASIS/SHRM WVPI.2011), using physical surveillance on a Person of Concern should be a consideration as part of the threat management plan.

The surveillance provider you choose will determine if the physical surveillance threat management tool is successful or fails in helping to protect your organization.

By Michael Wolivar

Copyright © Wolivar & Associates, Inc. 2019

March 17, 2019

A physical surveillance team can be a valuable tool for the Threat Management toolbox, especially when it is necessary to monitor a Person of Concern's activity and location covertly.

The focus of this article is to briefly discuss and recommend guidelines for choosing a reliable and effective physical surveillance provider for threat management cases. 

Not All Physical Surveillance Teams are Created Equal   

Private sector physical surveillance is one of the most misunderstood investigative disciplines and the most difficult to perform well consistently. Physical surveillance providers are not created equal. Using surveillance teams that are sub-par and ineffective can create safety and liability issues for the threat management team and the people for whom they are charged to protect.


The range of physical surveillance talent in the surveillance industry is dramatic, with few surveillance operatives qualifying for that small circle of so-called "high-level" surveillance operative, an informal surveillance reference to an exclusive group known for their consistent effectiveness in not being detected while not losing sight of the Person of Concern.


Security, investigative, and legal professionals routinely illustrate a misunderstanding of private sector surveillance when they choose unqualified surveillance providers, especially for sensitive high risk assignments.


Many of those professionals wrongly view all physical surveillance providers as the same. But nothing could be further from the truth. Very few physical surveillance providers are suitable for sensitive high risk assignments, such as conducting physical surveillance on a Person of Concern.

Benefits of Threat Management Partnering with Physical Surveillance Expert

The ANSI protocol for threat management further recommends that threat management “seek assistance by a qualified professional in assessing potential risks associated with surveillance efforts.” A qualified professional making a physical surveillance assessment should have significant experience conducting surveillance on hight threat Persons of Concern and know the limitations and capabilities of a particular physical surveillance team. Threat management should consider partnering with a physical surveillance expert so the best assessment on how (and if) a physical surveillance on a Person of Concern should be conducted.

The most significant safety benefit that physical surveillance services provide to the threat management team is constant awareness of the location and activity of the Person of Concern.

The most concerning risks associated with surveillance efforts are that the Person of Concern detects the surveillance and becomes aggravated, thus causing the surveillance to be discontinued. Professional full-time surveillance operatives with experience working threat cases know when to back off and always err on the side of caution versus become detected.

It is important to choose surveillance providers that comply with the law. Some private investigators use GPS devices illegally to conduct moving surveillance. According to the Orange County Register, in 2014, two private investigators reportedly hired by a law firm representing a police union were charged and convicted for the illegal placement of a GPS on a vehicle related to tailing Costa Mesa City Council Members. It appears the two private investigators were not full-time specialized surveillance experts, hence the likely need to use illegally a GPS device. 

The risks associated with physical surveillance on a Person of Concern can mostly be eliminated if a qualified, ethical, and effective surveillance provider is chosen. 

Three Physical Surveillance Principles   

The measure of a surveillance provider and its surveillance-operatives are primarily determined by these three principles:

1. Never let the target know he or she is under surveillance. 

2. Never lose sight of the target's location.

3. Always comply with relevant regulations, ethical codes and laws.

The most difficult part of any physical surveillance is covertly tailing a vehicle, which is normally done when a Person of Concern is driving.


Choosing the right surveillance team that can tail the Person of Concern while meeting the three surveillance principles should be the top criteria when choosing a physical surveillance provider.


Five Guidelines for Choosing a Surveillance Provider   

1 - Choose Only Investigation Companies that Specialize in Surveillance   

Much like the medical and legal fields, the private investigation field has a variety of experts and specialists. There are a large number of private investigators that claim to “do it all.” Just as one would not use a patrol officer to defuse a bomb or a primary physician for heart surgery, one should never use a private investigator that is not a qualified full-time specialist in physical surveillance, the most difficult of all investigative disciplines to conduct effectively.


Beware of the private investigator con-man. He or she is focused on the billing, not on whether the client's needs will be met. Will say what you want to hear. Most likely, the case will unnecessarily be burned or unable to follow the target.


Federal agencies such as the FBI and CIA have long recognized the import of only using specialist for physical surveillance. For example, the FBI has dedicated units (Mobile Surveillance Team and Special Operations Group) where Special Agents and Non-Agent Surveillance Specialists conduct team physical surveillance full-time.


It may be prudent to avoid using surveillance companies who primarily conduct surveillance on insurance claims. The performance bar, in general, for insurance claims surveillance tends to be low and those operatives are more likely to get burned or lose sight of the subject they are surveilling.


The employee-surveillance operatives that work in the insurance industry are among the lowest paid in surveillance, earning from approximately $12 to $25 per hour. A quick Internet search will demonstrate the pay and numerous job complaints from those insurance surveillance operatives.


Another group you may want to avoid is surveillance providers that use “off duty police officers,” from advertised elite police surveillance units. Often, the off-duty officers are not licensed private investigators or bonafide employees of a private investigation company; hence, in California, may operate illegally. Therefore, any evidentiary requirements, such as testifying, may be challenged. Moreover, unlicensed investigators are probably not covered under any professional insurance.


It is important to note that law enforcement surveillance and private sector surveillance are very different. Private sector physical surveillance requires far more skill, experience, and craftsmanship. Law enforcement surveillance has much more resources in terms of personnel, equipment, and technology. Just because someone conducted surveillance in law enforcement does not mean they are effective in private sector surveillance. 

2 - Talk to the Person Who Supervises the Surveillance Operatives   

Next to checking credible references, the most important part of due diligence is having a discussion with the surveillance manager, also referred to as the surveillance supervisor or case manager. Any legitimate surveillance provider will have a credible person in this role. You may want to ask the surveillance manager about some of the below points.


-      Does the surveillance manager have significant experience conducting and supervising high-end security and threat type physical surveillance? This is a must requirement.


-      Surveillance equipment includes non-descript vehicles used, i.e., not high profile vans or vehicles that would stand out during a moving tail. Fancy surveillance vans with periscopes are more for the comfort of the operative at the expense of alerting target to surveillance.


-      Surveillance managers are responsible for knowing all the necessary case information and preparation, and for the success or failure of the assignment, and for staying within budget.


-      The surveillance manager supervises the surveillance operation and provides timely updates to the threat management team.


-      The surveillance manager will confirm that the following resources are used to support the surveillance: proprietary databases, DMV accounts (run vehicle registrations, driving records and ownership of vehicles), and sophisticated social media search engines. These resources may be needed to initially locate a Person of Concern and/or develop intelligence helpful for conducting physical surveillance.


-      Like the coach of a sports team, a good surveillance manager knows what traits, skills, and experiences to look for when hiring and putting together a high-end physical surveillance team -- and can tell you how he or she does it.


-      Surveillance-operatives have strengths and weaknesses. The surveillance manager schedules and assigns operatives at the right times and for the tasks that best fit a particular operative.


-      The surveillance manager will be knowledgeable of ethics codes and invasion of privacy laws relevant to physical surveillance.


3 - Confirm Surveillance-Operatives are High-Level Qualified   

Confirm via the surveillance manager that the surveillance-operatives who will work on your case are qualified for high-level surveillance and have a track record of working successfully on high risk threat type cases.


The primary surveillance-operatives should have a minimum of five years’ experience conducting physical surveillance as a full-time job. The majority of that time should be spent as part of a surveillance team working on high-level cases.


Also notable is that the surveillance-operatives have worked as a team on multiple occasions. You don’t want your case to be the one where an investigative company (that does not specialize in physical surveillance) randomly throws together a bunch of independent contractors who have not worked together and have not been vetted by a qualified surveillance manager.


Physical surveillance is an art form that very few can do well consistently. It requires a wide variety of uncommon skill sets and traits, including superior multi-tasking abilities and possessing that rare “sixth sense” that serves as a sensor to alert the operative when tailing a Persons of Concern if he or she is too close or too far away.


Over a period of time, it becomes apparent who has that sixth sense and who doesn’t. Just like watching athletes that lead in assists: they have that extra that others don’t and cannot learn. It’s vital that all operatives on your case have that so-called sixth sense. 

4 - Request Two Credible References for Threat-Related Surveillances   

Request a minimum of two credible references that can confirm that the prospective provider has successfully conducted physical surveillance on Persons of Concern related to threat management.

5 - Private Investigation License/Certificate of Insurance/Attorney Work Product   

A) Request a copy of the private investigation license and confirm the license is valid. In many states, it’s a violation of law to conduct private investigations if you are not licensed. In California, if a business is not licensed and they conduct the surveillance via employees or sub-contractors, “they are guilty of a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine or imprisonment,” per California Business and Professions Code 7512-7573; California Code of Regulations Title 16, Division 7.


If the surveillance provider and its operatives are not licensed, the professional insurances may not be enforceable. Further, the evidence gathered during the investigation may be challenged in court since that evidence was obtained during the commission of above-listed misdemeanor crime.


To verify a private investigator license in California click on this link:

B) All major insurance companies and third-party administrators that use physical surveillance providers require the vendor to carry a minimum amount in Errors & Omissions liability insurance. You should do the same and request that your organization be named as an additional insured on the surveillance provider’s certificate of insurance. The standard charge for this additional insured is around $50.


C) Consideration should be made to have case-related written communication and reports addressed to in-house counsel to invoke the attorney-work product privilege, should at some point there be discovery requests. It is recommended the in-house counsel be consulted for the proper procedures.


When an immediate and credible threat occurs, it is a best practice to already vetted and partnered with a qualified physical surveillance provider.

Copyright © Wolivar & Associations, Inc. 2019