Training for Private Investigators

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Training is an integral component of any private investigator’s career, as this multi-faceted profession requires a diverse set of skills to achieve success. In fact, training must remain a central focus, both for individuals with aspirations of a career in investigations and for private investigators actively working in the profession.

Currently, 45 states require state licensing to become a private investigator, and another 3 states require licensing at the local level. But before candidates can become licensed, they generally need to show that they have some experience or pre-licensure training.

Completing a formal training program can accomplish two things to this end: (a) obtain the skills needed to work as a private investigator and (b) satisfy some or all of the education/experience requirements for state licensing.

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Many states require candidates for licensure to successfully complete a state exam that includes topics related to state laws and statutes, legal procedures and definitions, and court systems. State exams for private investigators typically assess a candidate’s knowledge on the following topics:

  • State law
  • Federal laws
  • Court systems
  • Legal Procedures and Due Process
  • Legal Privacy Requirements
  • Criminal and Civil Law
  • Surveillance, researching, and interviewing
  • Documentation, including report preparation
  • Types of investigation

Because of the complexity of these exams and the sheer amount of information covered, it is quite common for individuals to complete a state-approved basic training course before taking the state examination. Although not a requirement for licensure, these programs are an excellent way to prepare to take the state exam, not to mention being a great way to gain knowledge vital to a career in private investigations.

Some schools offer a 40-hour training course in private investigations designed specifically to prepare students for their state’s PI exam.

Some states actually require candidates to complete a training program prior to applying for a license as a private investigator. This may include a 60-hour, entry-level training program, which provides them with an introduction to the field of private investigations.

Curriculum in these training programs may include:

  • Ethics
  • State Codes and Regulations Relating to Private Security
  • Constitutional, Civil, and Criminal Law
  • General Investigative Techniques

Additional skills training may involve:

  • Firearms training
  • Non-lethal weapons
  • Pursuit driving
  • Arrest procedures
  • Surveillance and surveillance equipment
  • Evidence collection
  • Investigative and legal procedures
  • Use of force laws and codes
  • Arrest procedures

Training in Use of Force Laws and Code

Consider this training mandatory if you plan to carry non lethal weapons and firearms.

As a private investigator you’re primarily concerned with use of force as a means of self defense. In this context use of force is defined on a continuum as follows. Your use of force should be comparable to – and no greater than – the threat you perceive:

  • Verbal – you warn someone not to touch you
  • Empty hand submission techniques – use of pain compliance or other control tactics without weapons that has a low probability of causing injuries
  • Aggressive response techniques – this involves using kicks, punches, pepper spray, tasers, and other means that have a reasonable probability of soft tissue damage, breaking of bones, or irritation of mucous membranes
  • Intermediate use of weapons – this involves the use of weapons that have a high probability of causing soft tissue damage and breaking bones, and includes batons, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds for shotguns, and dogs
  • Use of deadly force – this involves the use of force that has a high probability of causing serious bodily injury or death, and includes use of firearms or use of vehicles as weapons; can also include use of an intermediate weapon on the head, neck, or spine

You’ll find yourself in few situations where you can legally use force against someone other than for self defense. One exception is if you are pursuing a target who has skipped bail, however use of force in this scenario is still highly dependent on the jurisdictional laws where you’re operating.

Arrest Procedures

While less common, you may find yourself in a situation where you’re allowed to make a citizen’s arrest or physically detain a target, such as someone who has skipped bond. What you’re legally allowed to do in this realm is highly dependent on the laws in the jurisdiction where you’re operating, so make sure you’re well aware of the legal landscape in your state.

Peace officer training academies often provide arrest procedure training, along with colleges and universities that offer police science or law enforcement courses. Live action demonstration and practice is part of the training course.

Topics that are covered in arrest procedure trainings include:

  • Giving commands
  • Handcuffing techniques and methods
  • Use of pain compliance and different techniques
  • Neutralizing suspects with weapons
  • Frisking procedures
  • Safety

Firearms Training

Some states allow private investigators to carry a handgun or other firearms. Laws in your area may require you to complete mandatory firearms training through a program approved by the state.

For example, private investigators in Georgia must complete training through the Georgia Firearm and Training Academy to achieve a Private Detective Concealed Weapons license, while private investigators in Ohio must complete a basic firearm training through a program approved by the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission.

Some states go so far as to license PIs and citizens to carry different classes of firearms: 1) handguns and 2) shotguns and other long guns.

The training to carry a shotgun in states that mandate a pre-licensure course typically involves two-hours in the classroom and qualifying at the firing range. You’ll learn about:

  • Pump-action and self-loading shotguns
  • Shotgun components
  • Shotgun ammunition
  • Shot shell components
  • Penetration and spread
  • Firing positions and safety

To be qualified to carry a handgun in states that require pre-licensure training, you may be required to complete a handgun safety course, pass a written exam, and receive classroom instruction that covers these topics:

  • Use of deadly force
  • Ballistics – trajectory, over-penetration, and ricochet
  • Handgun maintenance
  • Stance, grip, sight alignment, and safety

Non-Lethal Weapons Training

It’s common for PIs to carry non-lethal tools like pepper spray, batons, and tasers. The regulations regarding these devices vary from state to state, and can be vague when described by the law.

What is usually not vague is the law regarding when PIs are allowed to use force in general. Check with the PI regulations in your jurisdiction to determine the general use of force regulations, and whether or not there are non-lethal weapons regulations.

On the practical side, proper training will prepare you to use your weapon effectively and will help ensure you don’t end up in a situation where your own device is used against you.

Pepper Spray, Mace, and Capsicum Spray

Known by these three common names, if you’ve ever practiced using pepper spray chances are you’ve accidentally sprayed yourself or got some on your hands and then rubbed your eyes.

When law enforcement trains with pepper spray they have one segment that involves taking a direct hit so each officer knows what it’s like. You’ll probably also have this joy in your own training course.

Pepper spray comes in many forms. Its strength is measured in the percent of oleoresin capsicum (OC) it contains, a natural derivative from plants in the chili pepper family. Commercially available pepper spray starts at around 0.18 percent OC. Law enforcement-grade pepper spray and bear spray contain OC levels ranging between one and two percent. Some states like Wisconsin and Michigan limit the maximum allowable OC percentage.

Your training will cover what types of pepper spray are appropriate for the situations you will face, as well as all applicable laws.

A variation on pepper spray are pepper balls that are fired out of a gun using compressed air, similar to a paintball gun that fires paint balls. The fact that these are dangerous projectiles means you’ll encounter more stringent regulations and more training requirements, if you’re allowed to carry these devices in your jurisdiction at all.

Tasers and Stun Guns

Tasers are commonly understood to be guns that fire wire-attached electrodes into a target, delivering an electric shock. Stun guns are hand held devices with protruding electrodes that are pressed against a target at close range.

Like pepper spray, if you have one of these devices chances are you may have accidentally shocked yourself. And like pepper spray, training with these devices often involves getting zapped so you know what it feels like.

It’s not uncommon for states to have a training requirement for PIs who carry tasers, or to even forbid them altogether. For example, New York, Hawaii, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts only allow police to carry tasers.

There have been a number of deaths associated with tasers, prompting some to use the phrase “less lethal,” instead of “non-lethal.” Training is all the more important because these are hand-held devices used at close range. This means if you use these incorrectly there is a high chance they can be used against you.

The high voltage delivered by tasers and stun guns has two effects: pain and loss of voluntary muscle control in an affected area. Your training will cover how each of these aspects can be used to your advantage. It will also include going through different close quarters stances and positioning.

Batons, Truncheons, and Nightsticks

In the best-case scenario these tools will make someone think twice before attacking you, and in the worst-case, they are used as self defense in situations that literally devolve into hand-to-hand combat.

Like all close combat weapons these can make an effective difference in a confrontation, and can be used against you equally effectively if you’re not properly trained. Training focuses on defensive techniques and posture with these basic-yet-time-proven implements.

It’s important to know the law in your own jurisdiction for using these objects. For example, private investigators in California are not allowed to carry batons or other similar weapons.

Because these are essentially hand-to-hand defense weapons your training will include an extensive segment of sparring that goes through all the possible scenarios in which a target may turn aggressive.

Pursuit and Evasive Driving

You never know what kind of situations you’ll find yourself in as a PI so it’s always good to develop more skills than you hope to need. Pursuit and evasive driving is one of the most important types of training you can acquire, and can quite literally make the difference between life and death.

For each different technique you learn you’ll spend at least one day in the classroom learning the mechanics of these maneuvers and three days in a vacant lot or a closed course driving track putting them into practice:

  • Obstacle course
  • Forward 180 degree turns
  • Reverse 180 degree turns
  • Skid control and braking maneuvers
  • High speed maneuvers
  • Emergency turns and braking
  • Contact driving
  • PIT (precision immobilization technique) maneuver
  • Reverse PIT maneuver
  • Tactical vehicle and barricade ramming, forward and reverse
  • High speed vehicle pushing
  • Vehicle evacuation

Surveillance and Surveillance Equipment

Today there are more surveillance devices than ever. But a wide variety of choice doesn’t mean that the fundamentals of surveillance have changed.

As a private investigator you’ll spend countless hours conducting surveillance throughout your career. Doing this right makes the difference between success and failure.

There’s a saying among private investigators: those who are successful aren’t lucky; they’re prepared.

Before it gets specific about the different types of tools, surveillance training covers the theory and practicalities surrounding the collection of evidence for use in a courtroom. You’ll also learn about all applicable laws.

Surveillance training covers how to effectively use today’s essential tools of the trade:

Camera and Video Recorder:

  • Covert photos and recording
  • Static vs moving photos and recording
  • Night vs day photos and recording
  • Zoom lenses
  • Digital data and time stamps
  • Complex metering and light conditions
  • Exposure, aperture, and focal length

GPS Systems:

  • Satellite vehicle tracking
  • Mobile vehicle data systems
  • Legal aspects of GPS tracking
  • Tracking device attachment and concealment

Covert Communication Systems:

  • Two-way radios
  • Encrypted cell phone communication
  • Night communication equipment

Different Applications of Surveillance:

  • Foot and mobile surveillance
  • Mass transit surveillance
  • Vehicle surveillance
  • Stationary surveillance
  • Anti surveillance and surveillance avoidance

Investigative and Legal Training

Throughout your career you’ll find that the job description of a private investigator includes legal document researcher.

Although filing requests with government agencies and combing through documents at the county courthouse can be tedious, what you find can revolutionize a case.

As a private investigator you potentially have access to a wealth of information. Having the proper training will help you understand:

  • How to find arrest reports
  • How to find autopsy records and reports
  • How to obtain bank and tax records
  • How to obtain information about business licenses
  • How to gain access to video footage and audio transcripts of courtroom proceedings
  • How to gain access to information about crimes committed on school campuses
  • How to gain access to court records
  • How to obtain information about ownership titles and deeds
  • How to make FOIA requests (Freedom of Information Act)

Training for these procedures is different for every state because each jurisdiction has its own procedures.

You’ll also find training in the filing of legal papers to be helpful, however, if you’re working with cases that require you to do so, chances are you’ll also be working with a lawyer who should understand this well.

Evidence Collection

Don’t confuse PI evidence collection with what crime scene investigators collect. PIs don’t typically work as forensic technicians. In fact, if you did traipse through an active crime scene you could face charges like tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice.

PIs collect legal evidence to support a case, usually under the instruction of a lawyer. For example, collecting evidence of insurance fraud through surveillance, or collecting evidence to support an alibi by interviewing people.

Knowing how to properly collect evidence makes the difference between winning and losing in court.

Take the story of a PI who was involved in a child custody case as an example. The private investigator tailed the father involved in the case as he drove down a country road with his child in the back seat. The PI observed the father speeding, and noted this as evidence of child endangerment. When the PI was called to testify before the family court judge, the father’s attorney asked if the PI’s odometer had been calibrated by the city. “No,” the PI replied, and his evidence was ruled inadmissible.

As you can see, having adequate training in evidence collection is a must. This mainly takes place in the classroom. Important topics covered in PI evidence collection training include:

  • Testimony as evidence and avoiding hearsay
  • Signed statements and notarized statements as evidence
  • The difference between physical evidence and forensic evidence
  • Time line construction
  • Proving a negative and a quid pro quo

Training also covers what types of evidence can be admitted to different court systems:

  • Evidence for criminal cases
  • Evidence for civil cases
  • Evidence for family court cases
  • Evidence for federal cases
  • Evidence for small claims cases

A Degree Program Won’t Provide Skills Training, But Can Still Be an Important Part of Becoming a PI

Most states have formal requirements you must meet to start your own PI company. These requirements can often be fulfilled by having an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a relevant field.

This type of academic qualification is also helpful for developing your knowledge and understanding in important areas. A relevant degree serves as proof to your clients that you take your job seriously and have demonstrable skills to back this up.

Relevant associate’s and bachelor degree programs for private investigators include:

  • Police science
  • Criminal justice
  • Political science
  • Law enforcement
  • Forensic science
  • Law
  • Paralegal science

Another common path in this field is the completion of an undergraduate academic certificate or diploma. Private investigator diploma or certificate programs are ideal for individuals who want to learn the technical aspects of private investigations.

These programs offer specific training classes, including:

  • Background investigation and research
  • Skip tracing and locating missing persons
  • Surveillance
  • Legal investigations
  • Business crime investigations

Career Specialization

Because the private investigative field is a broad one, with professionals often focusing their careers on everything from insurance fraud investigation and computer forensics to marital infidelity and corporate fraud, many private investigators seek additional training so as to gain insight on a specific area of investigations.

For example, private investigators may choose to take courses related to:

  • Arson investigation
  • Cybercrimes/computer forensics
  • Legal investigation
  • Financial investigation
  • Insurance investigation
  • Civil/domestic investigation
  • Retail investigation (loss prevention)

There are many private investigator schools that offer these types of niche courses, and many state and national associations that offer training courses for their members.

Ongoing Training for Licensing and Firearms Qualifications

Many states require you to renew your PI license on an annual or semi-annual basis. As a condition to renew your license you may be required to complete a certain number of hours of continuing training in areas relevant to your practice as a private investigator.

Aside from being compliant with license maintenance requirements, continuing education is an excellent way for private investigators to stay current on state laws and regulations and to learn the newest techniques and theories. This can include training in:

  • Ethics
  • Legislative updates
  • Legal processes
  • Courtroom etiquette
  • Investigative processes
  • Training related to surveillance, non-lethal weapons, and PI technology training

In states that certify PIs to carry firearms you’ll likely need to show proof of continued training to renew your firearms certification. This is usually in the form of a firearms refresher course and shooting range re-qualification with the weapons you carry.

Every state can specify its own continuing education requirements so check with your local jurisdiction.

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