July 12, 2001

By Bob Stevens


Question: Is there much truth to the strong rivalry that is depicted between cops and private eyes in all the mysteries I read?
Wants To Know in Nebraska

Dear Wants,

You drove me to my sources with this one. My own professional interaction with law enforcement officers has almost always been positive. I frequently conduct parallel investigations, with me looking for evidence to assist an attorney or insurance company with respect to civil litigation while the police are concerned with a criminal prosecution. Generally, in those situations, Iíve found that a spirit of cooperation can be mutually beneficial. I wondered if my experiences were typical.

When I presented your question to another old-time PI, I was told the answer is, ďabsolutely, unequivocally, generally the truth.Ē The experiences of some investigators have led them to conclude that many police officers are envious of the freedom they believe private investigators have to conduct investigations without bureaucratic influence, and some are jealous of the big bucks they think PIs bring down. Unfortunately, any such perception is usually erroneous; few of us are really getting rich at this game.

There does appear to be a general consensus among those with whom I have discussed this apparent rivalry that the closer a police officer gets to retirement, the friendlier he gets with PIs, perhaps considering his own post-retirement career options.

I know a number of private investigators who are retired police officers, even some retired chiefs of police. I suspect they'd generally have good relations with their former colleagues.

Another device employed frequently in detective fiction involves the ďpet copĒ that fictional PIs sometimes call upon to run criminal or motor vehicle records, frequently for pay. My own perception was that any police officer would have to be crazy to do that. Here in California, itís a misdemeanor for me to solicit that kind of information, but the police officer who provides it is committing a felony. Who would risk ruination of his career and prison for a couple hundred bucks or tickets to a sporting event? But it does happen. I know because I read in the newspapers from time to time about some PI or cop getting busted for doing just that.

My sources tell me that this sort of thing was once a lot more prevalent than it is today. They say there was a time when they would regularly walk into their local police station and sit around in the squad room sharing coffee, donuts and data with their cop buddies. Now that law enforcement agencies have become more concerned about even the appearance of corruption, that probably doesnít happen so much.

Iím told some private investigators have employed law enforcement officers in their off-duty hours who have gotten them confidential information as a favor. One PI had a DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) Agent working for him. That guy could walk into virtually any law enforcement agency and get whatever he wanted, then heíd pass it along to his part-time employer.

Iíve hired off-duty police officers to assist (read protect) me when I had to go into particularly perilous situations, but I donít recall any of them ever offering to get me privileged information.

A private eye suggested if he really needed to get information only available to law enforcement today, a way to do it might be to approach a law enforcement officer in some other state with less severe penalties for disclosing such information. One might ask the out-of-state cop, either out of friendship or a spirit of entrepreneurship, to contact the California law enforcement agency with a request and a plausible excuse for the information sought. Of course, I would never suggest or recommend that anyone undertake such an underhanded practice. I donít even know if it would work, but it might make an interesting device for someoneís fictional private eye.

THROUGH A PRIVATE EYE DARKLY is a column dedicated to questions regarding private investigation. Please send questions to and please understand that Bob may not be able to answer each and every question though every effort will be made in that endeavor.

Denise Baton

Copyright © 2001 Robert A. Stevens