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Steve Cotner

I have done a lot of surveillance over my 37 years in business and in law enforcement before that. Anyone who has used someone to make covert observations for them in the past has probably heard an investigator say, “It is certainly not like it is on TV.” This article will take you through some of the real-life aspects of a surveillance.

Recently, we completed a two month surveillance project for a client. Two months in a car gives a person a lot of time to think about the whole process. The investigative team assigned to the project met with the client to discuss the process and how we would prepare for this particular job. In planning for this project, we talked about the process and how we would prepare for this particular job. For us, a surveillance project is started by getting as much background information about the subject as possible from our client. Then, we do our basic research, including social media and database research. We also look at the area around the subject’s residence, trying to learn potential traffic patterns the subject might use as he or she leaves the house. Keeping the traffic patterns in mind, we also discuss multiple surveillance vehicle positions. Some vantage points are better for making observations, and some are better for following the subject when they are on the move. Fallback plans are a must on any surveillance. We must anticipate and plan for the eventualities. The more we know about the subject the greater our chances of successfully documenting his or her activities.

Once we have a fairly clear picture from our client as to when the subject might start moving about, we get into place at least a half an hour prior to that. We try to position our surveillance vehicle so that we are as inconspicuous as possible. We do not want to attract the attention of neighbors or the subject. In some situations, to avoid law enforcement being called out to investigate an unusual vehicle parked in a neighborhood, we call them to let them know who we are and where we are parked. We do not, however, tell them the nature of the project we are working on. Normally they will not send out a patrol car if we check in with our credentials before we start the project.

And now, after creating our surveillance plan and getting into position, the waiting begins ... hour after hour of watching and waiting; sometimes seeing nothing. Trying to be relaxed yet always prepared for action. Always ready to go, ready to drive or follow, ready to shoot video or stills, ready to react to whatever comes our way.

We try to anticipate what the subject will do; to second guess which direction the subject will go first. We think about things like: “What is the plan if he makes the first light and we don’t? Are there streets or parking lots we can cut through if our path is blocked?” It’s a balancing act between thinking during the moving surveillance, staying in blind spots, making sure you are in good position as you approach traffic lights, reacting when cars that you have been using for cover peel off, when other cars pull in behind your subject and drive slowly, when you have to change lanes. All this, while making sure you maintain a good distance from the vehicle without losing sight of it.

While on surveillance, bathroom breaks are a rare luxury. It’s always best to have a Plan B! Still, you begin hoping that your subject heads for Bob Evans and gets seated at a table so you can use the restroom! Our main concern is to make sure that we are in the best position to document the activities no matter where the subject leads us. If we need to document who the subject is meeting, we are prepared for that. The variables are endless and it is our job to anticipate and react to every possible situation.

At the end of the day, whether we are able to document some significant activity or not, we have usually learned something of value about a subject. It could be driving patterns, vehicles that were used, favorite restaurants, bars, and stores or which bank they use. These are the little things that we make note of so that on the next day of the surveillance, we are even more prepared. Prepared, aware, and always vigilant because experience has taught us that one day does not a pattern make.

Often people have asked me what I do to kill the time during a surveillance. Do I read a book or watch videos, for example? The answer is “no”, you can’t let anything distract you. You have to keep your eye on the prize or you could lose it. Generally, our time is spent keeping watch, making a few notes on the case, listening to the radio, but always ready to move at a moment's notice. We have always held the thought that we are only as good as our last surveillance. Each one presents a different set of problems or obstacles that have to be overcome. Our years of experience and our consultation with our clients are integral parts of our process when planning and executing of an effective surveillance.