A Surveillance Investigator Tale

Contributed by: Brian Coykendall

As surveillance investigators, we routinely get asked many questions regarding the nature of our job: the thrills of following someone that is clearly unsuspecting, the heightened excitement of being in close proximity during covert surveillance and, of course, completing the objective and catching someone doing something that they probably should not be doing. These topics usually open up an array of “war” stories from any good surveillance investigator.  Most dialogue usually even carries a profound interest and passion, making the conversation even that much more appealing, on both ends.

These conversations usually follow the outline of any real short story:  an introduction, plot establishment, climax, plateau, then the descent to some abrupt ending and/or brief summary.  It usually begins to taper down toward the ending once it’s learned that what we actually do is NOT all James Bond and other Hollywood embellished figures of our profession.  There are no jetpacks that slingshot us into heightened surveillance positions (no, we really do have to run flights of stairs if that’s our plan of action…).  There is no single-person drone hovering above with an investigator at the helm making 360-degree observations undetected (cool though, right?!).  And one of my personal favorites, we are not equipped with every camera lens and filter in existence at any given time so that we may go from normal video observations straight into night vision and then infrared imaging (in the event that our subject may actually be Rambo or Jason Bourne…).

Once all of this is established, and understood with some degree of disappointment, we then get the infamous “How exciting of a job, I could so do that!!”  Is it?  Really?  And, could you???

What’s never exposed as part of what we do as surveillance investigators is the actual day-to-day experiences.  Sure, I can highlight my career with some of my “best bust” surveillance cases and make it sound exciting and appealing; however, what I don’t typically share is the other 90-percent…

As a surveillance investigator, you need to remain flexible (no, I’m not suggesting that you begin everyday with hot yoga…).  Your work schedule follows no schedule like most of you have ever experienced.  Because surveillance follows the schedule of another individual, scheduling the right time to conduct said task is planned by hours, sometimes days, of research and pre-surveillance work-up!  So, any given Friday can quickly turn your Saturday matinee Tigers game and/or your Sunday brunch with loved ones into another day of work!  Those evenings where your favorite dinner had been prepared, just for you by your significant other, and it’s been ruined with a phone call disclosing how your surveillance case has been extended due to unforeseen circumstances (ask my wife…), do become somewhat routine and expected.  And, of course, come prime time for any surveillance during the warm and pleasant months of the year, begin to prepare yourself for what feels like an 8-day work week!

So far, so good??

Battling the elements of surveillance can be tough, for anyone!  One of my best cases ever involved a subject with a brand-new auto and bodily injury claim, followed by over three hours of video as he participated in a Saturday afternoon softball tournament.  How fun, right?!  Yes, well, most of that was spent in the back seat of a black SUV, in the middle of July, under a cloudless sky with the front windows cracked roughly two inches, just to gain some breath of fresh air and the hope that maybe the slightest breeze would help combat heat exhaustion.  I think I lost nearly four pounds of water weight that afternoon (which is pretty impressive since I think I drank over a gallon of water without the slightest urge to pee…).  Summer surveillance can be very brutal!  Almost as brutal as last February where most surveillance investigators spent hours in their respective vehicles, parked on some residential side street.  If anyone remembers those temperatures last year, they weren’t pleasant, by any standards!  Some days touched down under the 20-below mark!!  And somewhere, some surveillance investigator was sitting, bundled up as much as possible with his or her hands and arms exposed and at the ready to lift their video camera and shoot a real-life movie.  The temperature inside the vehicle not much warmer and the engine not at idle, as to not cause any suspicion from the subject or surrounding neighbors.  Each breath visible and the coffee purchased just a half hour ago already had a slight chill to it.  Anyone ever try to keep a video camera still at 20-below zero?!

Are we still the envy of the work force??

I could literally go on and on over all the little quirks and qualms that would make many of you rethink your passion for becoming a surveillance investigator.  We could discuss, in great detail, the bathroom situation, perhaps the frustrations of maintaining a good mobile surveillance in the middle of rush hour traffic.  There is always the element of battling boredom.  The hours of sitting still, idle, staring into that little window of tunnel vision that your mind has created for you.  All the while you make every attempt not to let your mind wander into the realm of difficulties and challenges that your life may have set in place, away from work:  worrying about your children, your love life, wondering how your review may go, did you respond to that email, or simply just begin to become scatter-brained in general!  We have data research experts and managers that claim that they couldn’t do my job, nor do they want it.  That’s fair, as I feel the same about their position!

I’m sure that we all have extended lists of the pros and cons of our current job, profession and industry.  I’m also willing to bet that most of us may just find that where we are or where we really want to go is probably just as exciting (in the overall big picture) than that of us lonely surveillance investigators or joining a team of camera monkeys!  Despite all of this, I still (after many years) really enjoy what I do and the people I work with.  The excitement and the opportunity to make a difference, help a client or solve a puzzle still overshadows some of the downsides.