Find the Right 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, specifically 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 when working the most challenging and high stakes cases.


Security, investigative, and legal professionals routinely illustrate a misunderstanding of private sector surveillance when they choose unqualified surveillance providers, especially for sensitive 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 assignments, such as conducting physical surveillance on a Person of Concern.

Threat Management Protocol,

Physical Surveillance and Associated Risks

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 should have significant experience conducting surveillance on hight threat Persons of Concern. How does one assess the risk of surveillance if one does not know how surveillance works in the field, especially regarding on a certain type of person and in a specific environment? Having  an outside partner on the TMT to help in this assessment can help better assess the risk.

The most significant 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 and Person of Concern no longer monitored. Professional full-time surveillance operatives with experience working threat cases know when to back off and err on the said of caution versus become detected.

Additional surveillance risks include surveillance operatives that cheat by using illegally placed GPS devices on the target's vehicle or invading the privacy of the target. 

Additionally, some private investigators use GPS devices illegally to conduct moving surveillance. According to the Orange County Register, in 2014, two private investigators were charged with two felonies each related to the placement of a GPS on a vehicle click here for 2014 Orange County Register Story).

In addition to criminal liability, there may be civil liability for persons or organizations that hire surveillance investigation companies that have violated civil or criminal law.

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. If an unqualified, unethical, and ineffective surveillance team is used, the risk of something going wrong on the surveillance significantly and unnecessarily increases. 

Select the Physical Surveillance Team Before the Threat Occurs   

For a threat management team to properly weigh the “...potential risks associated with surveillance efforts,” as stated in the ANSI threat management protocol, it is recommended that a surveillance team be vetted and selected before a threat of workplace violence occurs. Knowing the surveillance team’s capabilities and background, including response time and the team's work history, is essential for conducting a proper risk assessment with regard to using surveillance at the time the threat occurs.

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.


Physical Surveillance Team Responsibilities to Threat Management 

The physical surveillance team has three primary responsibilities:


1. Most important: monitor the location of the Person of Concern so defenses can be readied should the Person of Concern travel toward a possible target location.


2. Provide the Threat Management Team with updated field observations on the Person of Concern’s activity that includes video/photos showing non-verbal behavior, as well as photos and vehicle plates of persons with whom Person of Concern meets, and the locations visited.


3. When appropriate, collect potential evidence that can aid in securing a Temporary Restraining Order, or secure video evidence demonstrating Person of Concern violating a Temporary Restraining Order.

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 full-time specialist in physical surveillance, the most difficult of all investigative disciplines to conduct effectively.


Beware of the PI conman. 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 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 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 on cases and lose the claimant or plaintiff 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 as well as a large number of complaints of those operatives regarding their private investigator employers and work environment.


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 has many 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 Director, 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 Director about some of the below points.


-      Does he or she have significant experience conducting and supervising high-end security and threat type physical surveillance?


-      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.


-      They 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.


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


-      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 director 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 Director schedules and assigns operatives at the right times and for the tasks that best fit a particular operative.


-      Knowledgeable of ethics codes and invasion of privacy laws relevant to physical surveillance.


-      History of good judgment on cases worked for the references provided.

3 - Confirm Surveillance-Operatives are High-Level Qualified   

Confirm via the Surveillance Director 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 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 numerous 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 specialist or surveillance director.


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 Person 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 a threat emergency occurs, it is a best practice to already have an effective physical surveillance tool at the ready and in the threat management toolbox -- and know its capabilities.

Copyright © Wolivar & Associations, Inc. 2019