For more than 150 years, private investigation has proven itself to be an upstanding and integral part of of civil and criminal law proceedings in the United States of America. We see its involvement in politics during the heyday of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. We read about Dick Tracy, and other comic-style heroes drawn from the annals of the private investigation industry. Private investigators are the stuff of a great deal of fictional speculation, from the original stories of Sherlock Holmes to more recent dramatizations – such as Murder She Wrote: wherever there is mystery, there is sure to be a keen-eyed and inquisitive individual lurking in the shadows, often someone “tough as nails” and willing to go to any length to see justice done. Which, of course, is all well and good for the movie industry…
…but how does it stack up against real-life expectations?
Changes in Perception
Recent years have seen a change in the focus on private investigative services. Private investigators are no long the primary subjects of mystery and crime TV. The focus is now almost entirely on official law enforcement services; when a private investigator turns up at all, the character is usually presented as something of a bottom-feeder: a male, often someone who failed to qualify for or was dishonorably discharged from law enforcement or military service. He spends his time spying on attractive, wrongfully maligned women, or going through the garbage of low-life targets looking for evidence of small-potatoes embezzlement or infidelity. With concerns about privacy and the security of personal information rife among today’s developed western population, people look at private investigators as unauthorized invaders: people who pursue unimportant or frivolous matters in the name of personal gain, and who often resort to illegal tactics to obtain the information they need to reach their conclusions.
Part of the reason why recent years’ revelations as to the extensive nature of official agencies’ spying efforts on American citizens was so upsetting to so many people lies in exactly this shift in perception. Once upon a time, people saw law enforcement agents as brutes, while “private dicks” were the heroes of the small man looking to get out from underneath the false accusations levied by an uncaring government. Over recent decades, with the growth of the civil rights movement and the increased perception of universal equality, the distant agencies of the government have come to be entrusted more than the man in the car down the street – who has “no more right to dig through my trash than my next door neighbor, or someone from two towns over.” A slight irony, as such tactics are often a resort of recent restrictions in information access, due to these very same fears that private investigators are overreaching their authority.
The Mother of Invention
The tactics in which the modern-day private investigator engages are the product of necessity. We have access to official databases of information, such as motor vehicle records and property ownership records. We can also do things that law enforcement officers cannot do, such as enter private property… and go through the garbage, so long as we aren’t caught. We don’t need warrants to engage in surveillance. We can listen in on casual conversations we happen to overhear. We can do all of this in the name of actually protecting the rights of our clients, by pursuing evidence in a case of wrongdoing made against them – or in assisting law enforcement with their own casework, when evidence is needed or a trail has gone cold. The point is that it must always be in the name of justice and truth, and no action must ever be undertaken for the sake of punishing a suspected wrongdoer ourselves.
Additional information about ethics & private investigation can be found at the website for the Council of International Investigators.